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For at least the first hour, perhaps a bit more, Tim Burton seems well on his way to making one of his best films in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The director, whose style has remained distinctively recognizable across 18 features in 30 years even as his inspiration has varied, seems entirely in synch with the most pertinent aspects of Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young adult best seller, especially with the odd vintage photographic elements the author so spookily employed, and the eccentric British setting is right up the director’s alley. But, alas, then the beauty and the bane of mass market contemporary cinema — CGI and enormous special effects — take over and marginalize the genuine narrative conviction that has up to then been generated in this cleverly conceived confection.
The Fox release should generate some robust initial business based on the built-in teen fan base as well as Burton fans, but whether it’s enough to spur sequels to the two remaining books in the trilogy is an open question.
There are unmistakable Harry Potteresque influences at play in Riggs’ text — for a start, a boy with uncomprehending elders at home, an old British school populated with a teacher and kids of very particular talents, goings-on that outsiders mustn’t know about and evil creatures needing to be kept at bay. At the same time, certain themes and human conditions are ripe for the picking by the likes of Burton, beginning with the oddball kid of impatient parents, a celebration of eccentricity and the downright weird, and a partiality toward style so outre it’s cool.
Like any number of previous young Burton leads, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) is rather a problem child, not remotely understood by his parents (Chris O’Dowd, Kim Dickens) but very close to his paternal grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp), who lives with them all in suburban Florida. Jake never tires of hearing Grandpa’s fabulous stories about how, after having gotten out of Poland just before World War II, he’d lived in a house with “the special children” before joining the British army.
Grandpa has always referred to the “monsters” he fought in the war, and has mysterious old photographs of freakish human oddities and supernatural-like phenomena that would make David Lynch jealous. But when pressed for more details, Grandpa says he doesn’t want to talk about it, which everyone has always understood as his way of referring to Holocaust-related horrors he witnessed and narrowly escaped. Jake thinks there’s more to it than that, so when Grandpa dies (his eyes mysteriously turned into black holes), annoyed Dad carts his son off to Wales, the location of Grandpa’s old school, to put the matter to rest once and for all.
Already, unusual ripples are coursing through the film, especially in regard to the father’s disdain for his son; the way O’Dowd plays him, it’s as if he’s got a physical allergy to the boy. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see why Jake has gravitated to the far more interesting Grandpa.
The principal object of Jake’s interest is the school Grandpa attended, which was hit by German bombs on Sept. 3, 1943. Indeed, when Jake and his dad inspect it, they find only a shell. But when Jake sneaks back on his own, he’s able to enter a portal that lands him back on that fateful day some 70 years earlier. And in the then-gorgeous school, he meets its inhabitants, who are both decidedly peculiar and rather enchanting. Ruling the roost is the stunning, pipe-smoking, black-attired headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who welcomes the outsider and explains the “recessive” gene of peculiarity; she, when the occasion calls for it, can transform into a falcon.
Most interesting among the perennial students is blonde-tressed Emma (Ella Purnell), whose unbearable lightness is such that she must wear heavy metal boots to keep from floating off into space. She and Abraham were “close” before the bombardment and she’s sworn off attachments ever since. Among the others blessed and cursed with the recessive gene of peculiarity are an invisible boy and Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), a junior taxidermist who creates doll-sized creatures and makes them fight. Burton could have made a short film just about him.
The key to the story lies in Miss Peregrine’s ability to manipulate time. Specifically, each day, for her, her students and the school, it’s still Sept. 3, 1943. By stopping her watch a matter of seconds before the Nazi bombers are to strike, she can turn back the clock 24 hours and life can go on; they can continue to live, learn, do interesting things and they do not age, but if they leave they’ll quickly get old and die, hence the tension when Emma and outsider Jake become involved.
Burton pulls off the crucial time-stopping with tremendous flair and also develops a nicely low-key relationship between Jake and Emma. For a time, an appealing gentleness prevails that’s rooted in this unique inter-generational romance, a feeling augmented in particular by Purnell’s slow-blooming flower of a performance, and if the film had remained focused more on the improbabilities of this love story, it might have emerged as something rather special.
Instead, the script by Jane Goldman (co-writer of two X-Men and two Kingsman entries) makes a screeching third-act turn into tiresomely conventional big action territory with the arrival of a blue/white-eyed, fright wigged, pointy-toothed, lobster claw-armed villain named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and other “bad peculiars.” Some sort of narrative excuse is invented for their sudden appearance, but the entire climax, played out at the Blackpool Tower and pier and centered on a funhouse, seems dragged in from some other movie and is an entirely unwelcome adjunct to the more rarified narrative pursued up to this point. This manufactured-feeling evil seems like it’s come from some other world and seriously deflates the sensitivity and delicacy of what’s come before.
To be sure, the effects throughout are marvelous, notably the portrayal of Emma’s weightlessness, Miss Peregrine’s phenomenal transformation into a falcon and the resurrection of a sunken ocean liner from the ocean floor. Colleen Atwood’s costumes are sensational, notably the great dark garb she’s created for Eva Green, as are Gavin Bocquet’s production design and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography.
Still, the heightened, fantastical elements of the story, coupled with the British wartime setting, put one in mind of Michel Powell, and one knows that, with him, the focus would have remained intently on the young lovers to the end, not on a detour into special effects.
Opens: September 30 (Fox)
Production: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Parnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Pixie Davies, Jack Brody, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Raffiella Chapman
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, based on the book by Ransom Riggs
Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping
Executive producers: Derek Frey, Katterli Frauenfelder, Nigel Gostelow, Ivana Lombardi
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Gavin Bocquet
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Chris Lebenzon
Music: Michael Higham, Matthew Mangeson
Casting: Susie Figgis
PG-13 rating, 126 minutes