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Despite what the treacherous, criminally dishonest posters would have you believe, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not the tale of a sassy Eva Green building a child-army of gurning youths through a rigorous regime of crossbow-based training, in a manner similar to, one would assume, the wrench-throwing scene in Dodgeball. Instead we follow Jake (Asa Butterfield) as he tries to come to terms with his grief after the highly suspicious death of his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp). Convinced that seeking out the children’s home Abe spent some of his youth in, and which was the source of numerous fantastical tales Jake was told as a child, he sets out for a small island off the coast of Wales in search of answers and closure.
Turns out the school is still there, exactly as it was when his grandfather visited it during WW2, preserved in a time-locked loop by its keeper: the titular bird-person of a female persuasion who, funnily enough, can turn into a peregrine and also has time-manipulation abilities. She, and other time-fiddling avian women like her, are the appointed guardians of ‘Peculiars’: children with gifts/abilities. Locked safely away in infinitely looping “perfect days” these children never age and are protected from a world that wouldn’t understand them but, more importantly, from the villain of the piece and only non-white actor in the film (can you see why people took issue with your remarks on diversity there, Tim?), Mr Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). Will Jake find a home amongst outcasts? Can he help Miss Peregrine and company thwart Barron when he comes looking to take the children’s eyes? And will Eva Green even fire that crossbow that she seems to be surgically attached to in the promotional materials? (Spoiler: she does. Literally once.)
The main problem is that while the characters and world are interesting in theory, it’s a double whammy of a surprisingly weak script from Jane Goldman and some lifeless, and in places outright poor, directing from Burton. The world is all very well designed and the characters all have their unique quirks and visuals, and while it’s refreshing that – outside of the bad guys – the aesthetic is a departure from Burton’s usual, now self-parodic sensibilities, he does nothing engaging with the world he’s created. Goldman’s script is also a big problem. A cursory Wikipedia trip confirms that the source material’s plot is quite a bit different so the majority of the most glaring issues (dull, perfunctory romance plots, odd and nonsensical world-building, a complete disregard for even basic logic in terms of physics), must be laid at her feet. This is to say nothing of the strange tonal inconsistencies and sudden shifts which, while at home in Kick-Ass where that juxtaposition of childish whimsy and brutal violence was the point, is out of place here. It’s genuinely unclear if either Goldman or Burton realised how dark some of this material was, given the certificate the film, and if playing for laughs a scene of Jackson and company eating dozens of eyeballs of the children they’ve kidnapped and murdered, makes any kind of sense dramatically.
All this dumb messiness and tone-deafness does however bring us neatly to the film’s standout sequence and the main reason – outside of Green’s performance and the brief visual of herself and Dame Judi holding crossbows – which one might recommend it. When Civil War came out even its most ardent detractors had to admit that the shear cinematic spectacle of the airport brawl made the film worth the price of admission. Now this isn’t quite that, but it’s close. Through a set of circumstances far too contrived to even begin to explain, our heroes lure some of the bad guys – along with their ten-foot tall, invisible Slender-Man monsters – to fight them on present-day Blackpool Pier’s fairground. After dousing the Slendies in snow and candyfloss to make them visible to the naked eye, the necromancer kid uses the reanimated, skeletal remains of the victims of a decades old cruise-liner lost at sea, as a makeshift army to brutally murder the bad guys. Visually, this is the most fun the film ever has and part of that is the outright absurdity of the situation and spectacle on display. It’s also hyper-violent, from the skeletons lynching a Slender-Man using the ferris wheel to another skeleton pinning a monster to the ground and repeatedly stabbing it in the face as gouts of inky blood spew out of the creature. It’s a bizarre delight and has Goldman written all over it.
This isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a particularly noteworthy or interesting one. There are some fun performances, the occasional wryly amusing moment and quite a good score. Yet despite being an, on balance, stronger effort than a lot of Burton’s recent output, Peregrine has the feel and appeal of a particularly middling two-part episode of modern Doctor Who. If you have the patience and inclination toward shlock though, the climax fight is almost worth it on its own merits. Almost.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below.