So it’s Harry Potter Lite. Very lite. No, wait: It’s X-Men Babies. In the land of Groundhog Day, or maybe in a Doctor Who-ish timey-wimey chronic hysteresis. Where they’re haunted by Slenderman. Later, there is a Bill & Ted reference.
Okay, so lots of things are derivative. That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. (Though remember the days when Tim Burton made movies that took your breath away with their originality, with their inimitable uniqueness: Beetlejuice. Edward Scissorhands. Ed Wood. Where has that Tim Burton gone? There’s only a shadow of him here.) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children breaks its own deal by being relentlessly dull even as it tries to whip up fantastical excitement. Kids with weird powers! Time travel! Monsters with tentacles and big teeth! A woman who can turn into a bird! But the movie struggles to get to a level of even mild interest, because it never gives us any characters to really care about. It never makes us understand why the bland people it shuffles about onscreen are in the danger everyone insists they’re in. The movie seems to believe that taking us on a tour of a strange world is enough. It isn’t.
Imagine if instead of being whisked off to — surprise! — magic school and getting dropped right in the middle of a rich new culture and left to sink or swim mostly on his own (not to mention into the middle of a battle for that culture’s very soul), Harry Potter was shown politely around Hogwarts for an hour and a half of screen time. Everyone he meets stops what they’re doing to explain the mysterious hidden world of magic to him, including a demonstration of their own magical abilities, almost as if they were all standing around waiting for his entrance, their cue to come to life and deliver an infodump into poor Harry’s (and the audience’s) lap.
This is what happens with Jake (Asa Butterfield: Ten Thousand Saints, X+Y), a teenager from Florida who discovers, in the wake of the death of his grandfather (Terence Stamp: Big Eyes, The Art of the Steal), the old man’s strange past, which was somehow connected to a children’s home on a remote Welsh island. Jake convinces his dad (Chris O’Dowd: The Program (2015), Cuban Fury) to take him to Wales to investigate, where he learns that the home was bombed by the Germans in WWII with all killed. Or maybe not! Turns out, Jake is actually able to time-travel into the past, to that last day in September 1943 before the bombing, where Miss Peregrine (Eva Green: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Salvation) and her passel of “peculiar” children live in a “loop,” that one day repeating over and over again, like how it is for Bill Murray’s meteorologist, except instead of an old homeless man who will die over and over again no matter what anyone does, here a baby squirrel can be saved from falling out a tree every afternoon. It’s a timey-wimey bedtime story.
Here, Jake gets the grand tour led by Emma (Ella Purnell: Maleficent, Kick-Ass 2), whose peculiarity is that gravity doesn’t apply to her: she will float away if she takes off her special lead shoes. There isn’t much in the way of story here, just character sketches as Jake meets the other children… except none of them are adequately sketched: they aren’t characters, they are nothing more than their peculiarities. One girl has a mouth on the back of her head; a boy is invisible; another kid is full of bees. (That sounds like it should be a euphemism for something. It isn’t.) They’re not even particularly cool peculiarities. The kids may be “peculiar,” but that is false advertising. Their bizarreness couldn’t be more colorless.
As the movie whiles away the time — lifelessly — letting Jake catch up with these people and their world, we are left to wonder about something that screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kingsman: The Secret Service, X-Men: Days of Future Past) might have considered (and possibly novelist Ransom Riggs, upon whose bestselling YA book this is based, though apparently this movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to it). These kids have been looping for decades, at a minimum; some of them perhaps for much longer. They obviously remember everything, yet their bodies don’t age. So either they have adult minds trapped in children’s bodies — in which case some of them should have gone mad like Claudia the eternal child vampire in Interview with the Vampire — or else they’re stuck with children’s minds for all eternity, which is a whole different sort of horror. (Whatever the case, Emma, who appears to be in her late teens, as actually Jake is, should not be able to treat him like a peer; he isn’t.)
This lack of appreciation for the potential darkness it has on its hands is emblematic of the film’s atmosphere on the whole. It has no weight of gloom or horror at all. But it also fails to go in the other direction: it is almost entirely humorless. It languishes in this blah no-movie’s-land, standing around contemplating its own navel, until it suddenly seems to realize that it needs to be telling a story, and then it crashes through a confusing plot-let about a bad peculiar called Barron (Samuel L. Jackson [The Legend of Tarzan, The Hateful Eight], who phones in shouty monologues and seems embarrassed to be here) who is after the children because Reasons.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Miss Peregrine is the extraordinary number of really wonderful actors it squanders by squashing them flat or just not allowing them to do much of anything at all. In addition to Green and O’Dowd forced to tread water, there’s also the marvelous Kim Dickens (Gone Girl, Footloose) as Jake’s mother (she’s barely in two scenes, and barely speaks in them), Allison Janney (Minions, Spy) as Jake’s psychiatrist (totally wasted), and Judi Dench (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Philomena) and Rupert Everett (Finding Altamira, A Royal Night Out) in glorified cameos.
And then, even if you’re willing to forgive all of that, the movie winds up with a whopper of a plot hole that is entirely unforgivable. Whatever disbelief you may have been able to suspend in the face of an invisible boy and time loops is wrecked by the necessities of the mundane world. That may be the most damning indictment of all of Miss Peregrine: not only can it not handle fantasy, it cannot even cope with reality.