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September 20, 2017

‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is a passable fantasy affair

Director Tim Burton’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is based on the first book in Ransom Riggs’ spine-tingling, best-selling gothic trilogy. (20th Century Fox)

20th Century Fox

It’s nice to see Tim Burton make decent movies again, despite the fact they often fall short of the potential he displayed in the 1990s. After he delivered the dullest possible take on “Alice in Wonderland” coupled with the one-two punch of the asinine “Dark Shadows,” I was worried that he lost his delightfully macabre touch forever.

Yet as soon as he cut the dead weight that is Johnny Depp from his filmography, a marked jump in quality ensued. Now, that is not to say he has started to churn out masterpieces à la “Ed Wood,” yet if a friend were to take “Frankenweenie” or “Big Eyes” out on Redbox, I wouldn’t object to it, either.

His most recent project, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, is neither particularly great nor overly awful. It’s pretty much the definition of “fine.”

Asa Butterfield plays Jake Portman, who assumes the typical Burton protagonist as the misunderstood pale-skinned brunette lad. He discovers he has inherited his grandfather’s ability to see Lovecraftian monsters called “Hollowgast.” (Yes, really. There’s some cheap genocide imagery in this film that seems more a signifier than substance.)

Jake embarks to Wales with his estranged father – wouldn’t be a Burton film without one – to find his grandpa’s childhood orphanage. This is no ordinary orphanage though, as it provides a safe haven to children with special – one might even say peculiar – abilities, including a girl with a mouth on the back of her head, a boy with bees in his stomach and two creepy twin Gorgons.

Nevertheless, danger lurks on the horizon when the sinister Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens to destroy the 1940s time loop that Charles Xavier’s … oops … I mean Ms. Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children lives inside, and wishes to harvest their eyeballs in order to restore his human form. You may have noticed this plot is more than a little convoluted.

While far from groundbreaking – the film borrows the plot threads of at least half a dozen different young adult narratives – the film still retains a distinctive sense of Burton-y humor and tone, along with his trademark visual flair. One scene involves one of the Ymbrynes (that’s what the ersatz mutants in this universe are called; don’t ask me why) controlling the corpse of another child via a marionette, and I’m impressed that Burton managed to include such a cool, morbid image inside a children’s film.

Shame about the lead though. While I’m sure Butterfield is a nice young man who always eats his vegetables and calls his grandmother and whatnot, he has the charm of wet mud here.

Although Jake, as yet another “Chosen One” (the most tedious archetype in fiction) does not give him much personality to begin with (the more nondescript the hero, the better the audience can project themselves, right?), Butterfield’s near-constant blank face and muted reactions fail to help enrich an already dull doormat, made even more irritating by the constant reminders of his peculiarity. One would think after “The Lego Movie’s” perfect skewering of “the Special” that writers this played-out trope, yet here’s another Chosen One to throw on the pile.

Thankfully, what can be said about Butterfield cannot be said for Eva Green, who is absolutely stellar as always. As the titular Miss Peregrine, Green demonstrates her classic smolder. Her eyes have a manic intensity to them that never wavers. We understand immediately this witch is at once deeply unhinged and completely in control of her surroundings. Maybe one day she can star in a movie that deserves her.

Although Burton has given the typical tone-deaf white man response in the face of well-deserved flack over this movie’s lack of diversity, at least the one person of color present is Jackson, who is clearly having a blast. Although it doesn’t have the delightful goofiness of his “Kingsman” performance, Jackson’s campy energy is so invigorating here that it almost makes one forget that the movie’s central conflict is literally about the attempts of a group of white children to keep a black man from disturbing their perfect 1940s utopia.

So, while the movie’s optics are more than a little troubling, I can’t bring myself to actively dislike it. While I realize that my reviews tend to skew on the polarized end of the opinion, this movie is the first in a while where I’m truly torn.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is too imaginative to be a hackwork, and it’s too derivative to be innovative. Maybe someday, Tim Burton can reclaim the former mantle of “tortured genius” that 13-year-old me idolized, but that day isn’t today. Keeping Depp away seems to have set a good trend, though.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu.

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