Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Tim Burton's "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," an adaptation of Ransom Riggs' novel of the same name, is a bizarre fantasy of the type we'd expect to see from the director of such oddities as "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice," but while the picture has a few dazzling special effects sequences and an abundance of peculiarities, it's a jumbled affair with a mostly uninspiring lead character and a plot that defies comprehension.

As the film opens, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield, doing his best with a bland role) discovers that his grandfather (Terence Stamp) is in some sort of peril, rushes to his house in Florida and discovers him dead, the old man's eyes having been plucked out.

For years, Jake's grandfather had told him fantastic stories of a group of odd children - a sort of more terrifying and pint sized X-Men, if you will - who live on an island where they are watched over by the titular matron (played with a bit of camp by Eva Green). But Jake's father (Chris O'Dowd) and mother think their son is having emotional and mental problems and, therefore, send him to a shrink (Allison Janney), who believes a trip to Wales - where Jake's grandpa claimed to have stayed with Miss Peregrine and company - could bring closure for Jake in dealing with the old man's death.

Once there, Jake discovers the group of peculiars - which include a young girl who floats, a boy who projects his dreams, another who can bring inanimate objects to life, a strong little girl, an invisible kid, one who can cause anything to grow, a fire starter (literally), a young girl with a gigantic mouth on her neck and two creepy twins who always wear hoods over their faces - and they bring him into their circle.

It's shortly after Jake's initiation into Miss Peregrine's home that the narrative begins to go haywire. For starters, Peregrine tells Jake that there is a rival group of peculiars - evil ones, that is - led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) who eat the eyeballs of fellow peculiars to gain power and are leading an army of shadowy creatures that only Jake - this being his peculiar ability - can see. Barron and these creatures - which appear to be stop motion animated giants with tentacles coming out of their eyes and mouth - are believed to be on the march to find Miss Peregrine and her children.

There's also a subplot involving the manner in which Miss Peregrine - who can bend time - enables the children to never age by recreating a loop of the same day (Sept. 3, 1943) over and over again. Also, Jake's grandfather is able to place calls on a daily basis to Peregrine from the past and there's even a burgeoning romance between Jake and Emma (Ella Purnell), the floating girl.

If this all sounds confusing, believe me, it is. There's some fun to be had with Burton introducing this odd assortment of characters, who are meant to be both likable and occasionally frightening. And, late in the film, the special effects extravaganza you know is coming actually turns out to be pretty well done as Jake and his new friends battle the tall, eyeball-eating creatures with the assistance of an army of skeletons (don't ask).

But, on the whole, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is a hodgepodge of various genres (horror movies, science fiction, fantasy, coming of age) that never quite gel. The picture is a little too scary - and gruesome, for that matter - for young kids and a bit too silly for older kids or adults. It appears to aim for the crowd that bought into "The Hunger Games" or similar young adult franchises, but its lead character isn't as well drawn as a Katniss Everdeen and the world it creates - as well as the story it spins - are more confounding than awe inspiring.

At his best, Burton is a master of spinning unusual yarns (and also a very good director of serious material - take "Ed Wood" or "Big Fish," for example), but his latest is more in line with his "Alice in Wonderland" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" remakes, which had great special effects but were missing the ingredients that should have made them magical.

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