There was a time not so long ago when I would positively salivate in anticipation of a new Tim Burton movie. I'd rev up my excitement by revisiting his classics: Beetlejuice," "Batman Returns" and "Edward Scissorhands." But as the years whipped by and the flops piled up, this became less a fun tradition and more a torture session where I'd see how imaginative, wonderfully weird, and emotionally rich his films once were, only to be confronted with how lackluster, lame and self-plagiarizing they are now. A rocky road littered with underwhelmed reviews and poor profits has led us to the loony "Dark Shadows," the lifeless "Frankenweenie," the eye-roll-inducing "Big Eyes" and his latest, the forgettable kids flick "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children."
Based on the Ransom Riggs novel of the same name, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" follows lonely 16-year-old Jake (Asa Butterfield), whose world is pitched into a spin when his grandfather (Terrence Stamp) dies under mysterious circumstances. Sure, the police say his grandpa was killed by wild dogs roaming quiet Florida suburbs, specifically the kind of wild dogs that tear down screen doors, ransack houses, rip up fences as if they were tissue paper, then kill their victim by eating his "soft parts," meaning the eyes. Understandably, Jake's not satisfied with that explanation. Seeking what really happened to his grandfather, he follows clues to a remote Welsh village, where the teen time-travels to meet the film's titular governess and her selection of strange wards, who all possess incredible powers.
Within the World War II-era time-loop created by Miss Peregrine, Jake enjoys the chance to fall in love with a gorgeous girl (Ella Purnell, who fits well into Burton's big-eyed and pale-skin aesthetic), and to prove himself a dashing hero. After discovering his own peculiarity, he's pitted against a piranha-mouthed villain (Samuel L. Jackson) who stalks governesses like Miss Peregrine for their time-controlling powers. That is when he's not hunting peculiar children to feed their eyes to Slenderman-like monsters with tattered suits, elongated limbs, and feature-less faces punctuated by tentacles. Unfortunately, Jake never manages to level up to dashing, and the hero bit feels incredibly forced. Regrettably, "forced" fits much of the movie, including the emotional beats and the overabundance of expositional dialogue.
Jake no sooner pokes his button nose into the children's time loop than his relationship with each member of this motley crew is cemented. Emma, who floats like a balloon and can "control" air, loves him instantly while Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), a homunculi maker and the only other teen boy for 100 years, loathes him. All the rest immediately insist Jake abandon his life and family in 2016 and stay with them forever in the eve of the worst bombing Wales has ever seen. Why do they (mostly) like Jake so well? It's a mystery the movie won't bother to answer.
Jane Goldman's screenplay races through the first act, giving little to lure us into liking this mild-mannered kid. And Butterfield doesn't brandish the kind of dazzling presence that can make up for the script's woeful lack of character moments. The peculiar children are likewise one-note: Emma is sweet. Enoch's a jerk. His girlfriend Olive is also sweet. All the other children are unmemorable moppets who'd be indistinguishable save for their particular peculiarities, like a hidden maw ridged with fangs, being filled with live bees or invisible, or…something to do making plants grow huge. Even in the simple task of setting up the kids' powers, Burton can't be bothered.
Despite any kind of development, these teenagers' flustered flirting and faintly falling into emotions of love, grief and jealousy fills most of the film's first hour. This demands major catch-up work when the plot kicks back into gear, pressuring characters to sputter out expositional dialogue at a pace so rapid-fire you'll likely miss something about safe time loops and wicked wights and hungry hollowgasts. But don't worry. I assure you that even if you did catch it all, the plot is still be riddled with enough plot holes to make less sense than any given iTunes user agreement. For instance: why can't children with the power of great strength, or the ability to control air, fire, and bees mount any defense when attacked in their home? Because we must barrel into a far-off location for third act that offers more spectacle than the book did (thankfully), but little satisfaction (regrettably).
Thank the movie gods for Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson. While the opening credits promise appearances from a string of actors grown-ups might perk up over (Chris O'Dowd, Kim Dickens, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Allison Janney and Dame Judy Dench!), the lot of them are wasted in thankless supporting roles that offer less screen time than sense. Yet, Green and Jackson bring enough vibrancy to this Burton's latest dud that it's not entirely terrible. I know that sounds like faint praise, but the pair are fighting an uphill battle against a nonsensical plot, bland characters, and the director's apparently faltering interest.
Jackson clearly relishes the slick suits paired with whiteout contacts, razor-sharp rows of teeth and a redo of Christopher Walken's "Batman Returns" wig he gets to don as the baddie Barron. While photogenic children sleepwalk through their roles, he lurks and snarks like a cartoon villain with invigorating energy and lively camp. But the wonky plot makes audiences wait until the third act for Jackson to finally deliver a line. And when he does, he's hobbled by a lisp courtesy of those gangly prosthetic chompers. No wonder the iconic actor's strongest moment is during a scene where he's bellowing plot points at his creepy compatriots. His frustration that they don't understand what's going on feels real, and allows an audience equally frustrated with the cockamamie plot a much-needed catharsis.
Green is likewise saddled with a string of exposition dumps that tell instead of show the potentially compelling world that Rigg's novel introduced. Still, this actress accustomed to being the best bit of a bad movie ('Dark Shadows," "Sin City 2," "300: Rise of an Empire") delivers hers with a jaunty and slightly unhinged energy that could make you wonder if Miss Peregrine might eat her young rather than have a sharp-smiled stranger snatch them away. Whipping her architectural wig into one fantastic silhouette after another while working magic with a melodic French accent and some masterful pipe smoking choreography, Green spins a sense of whimsy and danger that's thrilling and delightful. It's a shame the rest of the movie can't keep up with her.
Cast in cool colors and with lovely looking children terrorized by grotesque, eye-gobbling goons, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" plays like "American Horror Story" for the kindergarten set. To young children, it may be exciting enough that they won't mind the mess of a plot. But for old-school Burton fans, the hints to his pasts works (the saturated satire of suburbia of "Edward Scissorhands," the eccentric stop motion of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," the frenzied monsters of "Mars Attacks") will be an painful poke on a bruise that re-emerges with each murky movie this once visionary director carelessly dumps into theaters.
"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" opens September 30, 2016.