Imagination is perhaps humanity's most peculiar trait, allowing us to stand apart from other living creatures by enabling our capacity to make art. Just as every human being is unique, no two imaginations are exactly alike. They can range in complexity and quality, from dull to fantastical. Simply having ideas and fantasies, however, doesn't automatically make a person an artist. It's the way a person takes those raw ideas and interprets, forms, and presents them that defines who they are as an artist and what they wish to express. Tim Burton is one of the most imaginative artists of the last few decades, creating works so iconic that the mere mention of his name conjures up visuals and concepts all by itself. Having made his mark in the 80's and 90's with some all time classic films, in recent years he's bounced between undercooked yet heartfelt dramas and odd-fitting big budget franchise non-starters. His latest film, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, is an adaptation of a decently successful young adult book series, and seeks to align Burton's personal artistic interests and quirks with a big budget family adventure film. An artist as imaginative as Burton does wonders with the material, creating one of his most visually gorgeous and expressive films yet. However, any imagination as active as Burton's is in danger of making things too big and unfocused, and as a result Miss Peregrine suffers as a film for it, despite its strengths.
The one thing Miss Peregrine can't be accused of lacking is a plot, as there is enough of it for several books. Based on the first of (currently) three novels in the series by author Ransom Riggs, the story concerns Jake (Asa Butterfield), an unremarkable teen living in Florida with his self-absorbed parents and no friends. The only bright spot in his life is his relationship with his delusional grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp) who keeps talking of magical places in the world where special people (they prefer the term "peculiar") live, and a monstrous faction that seeks to wipe them out. When Abe dies under highly mysterious circumstances, Jake convinces his therapist and his family to allow him to travel to an island in Wales where Abe used to spend a lot of time. There he finds a "loop", a special day in time where a group of peculiars live, watched over by a "Ymbryne" by the name of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Ymbrynes can not only transform into birds, but also have the power to create, close, and reset loops, allowing their peculiar charges to live within the same day over and over. When Jake discovers that the man responsible for attacking loops, Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) is also an eye-eating monster known as a Hollowgast, he must decide if he can protect his new friends while figuring out where he belongs.
The sheer amount of conceptual ideas contained in the film is both its strength and its downfall, as the narrative is too big to allow any room for the characters to thrive. Those concepts wear the film's influences on its sleeve, which include everything from Marvel's X-Men to Harry Potter to Groundhog Day. Screenwriter Jane Goldman attempts to do the same "fish out of water finds secret society, defeats villain, becomes heroic leader" structure for this film as she did so brilliantly for last year's Kingsman: The Secret Service. Unfortunately the story is so bursting with ideas (and likely so constrained by a motion picture's running time, given its origins on the page) that it takes a while before the film finds a comfortable rhythm, and by that time it's almost over. Compounding the issue is Asa Butterfield's dull performance as Jake, starting out disaffected and put upon and never progressing beyond that point, despite having so many wondrous sights and an entire romantic subplot thrown at him. Near the end, Barron impersonates Jake using his shapeshifting ability, and Butterfield plays the resulting "don't shoot me, he's the bad one!" conflict with all the urgency of a mildly hungry teen ordering a pizza. The script doesn't deepen Jake's journey beyond moving him from plot point to plot point, though, so it may not be entirely Butterfield's fault. Similarly, Chris O'Dowd, a fantastic actor, is saddled with the thankless part of Jake's father, whose role in the story is both as a loving yet absent father as well as an indifferent and oblivious authority figure, the two of which the film can't quite reconcile. Miss Peregrine and her children fare better, though are more defined through their visual presence then any character traits. Eva Green is as fierce and delightful as ever, doing the heavy lifting to make the otherwise incidental role of Miss Peregrine pop. Finlay McMillan gives a good turn as Jake's brooding, jealous rival Enoch, and Ella Purnell is compelling as Emma, both the ex-paramour of Abe and current love interest of Jake.
What's unclear to an audience member like myself, who's unfamiliar with the book series the film is based on, is how much of the clunky structure is due to adaptation issues instead of other flaws. Throughout Miss Peregrine I found myself reminded of David Lynch's film adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune, which is a similarly unwieldy film to watch for most audiences, but to readers of the source material it seems more faithful and easier to follow. Miss Peregrine takes many narrative detours that could be easier to understand as part of a novel then as a film, such as having Jake go back and forth several times between 2016 Wales and the 1943 loop. Just as it settles into that rhythm, it moves into a third act that isn't quite a rescue mission or a final battle yet tries to be both. The film presents characters that are played by wonderful actors such as Alison Janney and Rupert Everett who essentially go nowhere, thanks to a twist in the second act that introduces the antagonist Barron, who enters the film too late for him to make much of an impression beyond his visual design. Chris O' Dowd's father figure disappears from the movie entirely, and the resolution to Miss Peregrine's character is so unsatisfying I can only assume it's a direct lift from how it happens in the book, to help set up future installments or some such reason.
With all of that said, you would think that Miss Peregrine has very little to offer besides a frustrating time at the movies, but Burton is in top form here, bringing every bit of his visual prowess to the film and making what might be his most gorgeous movie yet. Every bit of character and production design is a total delight, as Burton and his team take each of those aforementioned narrative bumps in the road and use them as an excuse to introduce a new set, costume or element. Geographically the film contains everything from tacky suburban Florida homes to rural Welsh pubs to devastated gothic mansions to that same mansion in a lush, period setting to a floating submarine wreck to a snowy modern day English amusement park. These locations are populated with kids whose superpowers (sorry, "peculiarities") range from manipulating fire to manipulating plants to projecting precognitive dreams to a cute little girl with a giant monstrous maw in the back of her head. Miss Peregrine's Hollowgast's are reminiscent of classic family films of the past like The Witches in that the filmmakers are unafraid to make them truly scary, giant monsters with tentacle tongues who seek to eat the eyes of the peculiar children. Through the character of Enoch, whose peculiarity involves puppeteering the dead (or otherwise inanimate), Burton introduces stop motion animation into the movie, resulting in an inspired battle sequence between the Hollowgasts and an army of skeletons (only the latest in a long line of films paying homage to Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts). The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is fantastic, and the score by Michael Higham and Matthew Margeson provides some much needed emotional textures. Burton is collaborating with a relatively new set of people here, rather then his usual Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter/Danny Elfman crew, which gives this film a much needed change-up in style that his last couple of movies lacked. In a lot of ways (at least visually) this is Burton's first superhero movie since Batman Returns, and he combines his aesthetic with the material so well and with such variety that it ends up being his most visually rich film since Big Fish.
Ultimately, though, all the eye candy in the world alone can't make Miss Peregrine the new classic (and franchise) that it could have been. The characters are too thin and the story too disjointed to really stick with an audience and make them want to rewatch the movie, let alone wish to see any further adventures of the characters. However, it's possible that I could be wrong, and Miss Peregrine will find a following. The premise is a great one, the bulk of the cast are charming, and given the continued popularity of similarly concept-rich but character thin family film favorites such as The Goonies, The Neverending Story and Jumanji it could catch on. The movie is certainly worthy of being loved by anyone with enough interest in it to be inspired by the wonderful visual design and concepts, while filling in the blanks for the characters using the books or their own imaginations. For everyone else, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is a film best exemplified by Emma's peculiarity, possessing the power of flight but perpetually weighed down by leaden shoes.