Tim Burton’s Home for Familiar Ideas

ONE of the characters in Tim Burton’s fantasy-adventure hodge-podge, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, has the power to build grotesque puppets out of crabs, cutlery and Victorian dolls, and then bring them, briefly, to life. The film as a whole is a bit like his Frankenstein’s monster-ish creations, in that it is cobbled together from parts of other books and films, but never quite becomes a living, breathing entity in its own right. What do you get when you cross all of Mr Burton’s previous work with “X-Men”, “Harry Potter”, “Peter Pan”, “Groundhog Day” and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion skeletons from “Jason and the Argonauts”? The answer, unfortunately, is nothing in particular.

Based on a best-selling “young adult” novel, the film has a typically wet “YA” protagonist: a Florida teenager, Jake (Asa Butterfield), who stacks supermarket shelves while the cool kids ignore him. His one pleasure in life is listening to his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), spinning yarns about his time in an orphanage in the 1940s. Abe fled from Poland, we hear, to a house on a tiny Welsh island where all the children were outcasts with freakish superpowers. One of these misfits was a human beehive, another was invisible, and another was so light that she could float into the sky. Abe’s reminiscences sound preposterous—much like the tall tales in Mr Burton’s “Big Fish”—but when the old man is murdered by a supernatural assailant, Jake is prompted to travel to the island to see if the orphanage is actually there. It is and it isn’t. In the present day, the house is an ivy-choked ruin. But in a parallel universe called a “loop”, the orphanage and its residents are exactly as Abe described them. The children live the same day in 1943 over and over again, never ageing, and never leaving the island. And they’re all cared for by Alma Peregrine (Eva Green), a hearty, pipe-smoking matriarch with the ability to wind back the clock by 24 hours every evening. With her huge eyes and porcelain skin, she could be one of Mr Burton’s figurines from “Corpse Bride” or “Frankenweenie”.

There is a lot in that premise for Mr Burton to conjure with. He could have explored the frustrating strangeness of being trapped in the same day for decades, shut away from the outside world, with Miss Peregrine as a crossbow-wielding Miss Havisham. He could also have expanded upon the film’s early intimations that the children had all escaped from the Nazis, and that the ravenous monsters Abe mentioned were really SS officers. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” could, in short, have been a genuinely creepy and magical film.

Disappointingly, Mr Burton and his screenwriter, Jane Goldman, chose instead to follow the outline of every previous “YA” novel adaptation, which means that rather than fleshing out the characters, they bury those characters under stacks of jargon-filled mythology (“hollowghasts”, “ymbrines”), headache-inducing plotting and digitally-enhanced action sequences. First they introduce an antagonist called Mr Barren (Samuel L. Jackson, whose ranting villainy recalls his performance in another tired fantasy adventure, “Jumper”). Then they add a cabal of superhuman evildoers with a diabolical and utterly incomprehensible plan to achieve immortality. On and on the film goes, like an entire series of “Doctor Who” on fast-forward, none of it making any sense and all of it taking us further and further away from the pathos of the intriguing orphans and their enforced stasis. Both Miss Peregrine and her Home for Peculiar Children are written out of proceedings with an hour still to go.

The film ultimately feels like a belated and soulless attempt to cash in on the “YA” craze, from the Lemony Snicket-alike title onwards. That’s probably because of the source novel’s unusual origins. Its author, Ransom Riggs, showed his collection of vintage trick photographs to a publisher, Quirk Books, and it was an editor there who proposed that he use these spooky pictures as the framework of a YA novel. Quirk is best known for “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, so its employees obviously have a knack for attention-grabbing gimmicks. The novel has been so successful that Mr Riggs must have done something right, but it is a pity he didn’t just research the people who took those original black-and-white photographs of a floating girl and a bee-covered boy. Their story must have been more interesting than the one in Mr Burton’s film.


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