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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children movie review: infodump, the movie

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Relentlessly dull. A tour of a strange world and “characters” little more than their “peculiar” abilities isn’t enough to whip up fantastical excitement.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I was a peculiar child, and I remain a peculiar adult; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): mostly disappointed by Tim Burton lately
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

Remember the days when Tim Burton made movies that took your breath away with their originality? Where has that Tim Burton gone?

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.tweet

“Two hours and seven minutes is shorter than all of the Harry Potter movies, so quit your whinging.”

“Two hours and seven minutes is shorter than all of the Harry Potter movies, so quit your whinging.”tweet

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.

The kids may be “peculiar,” but that is false advertising. Their bizarreness couldn’t be more colorless.

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.)

“The secret, my dears, to not being embarrassed to be appearing in a film is to ensure that your role is as minimal as possible. Just take the paycheck and run.” --Judi Dench, Lessons from the Actor’s Life

“The secret, my dears, to not being embarrassed to be appearing in a film is to ensure that your role is as minimal as possible. Just take the paycheck and run.” –Judi Dench, Lessons from the Actor’s Lifetweet

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.tweet 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.tweet

red light 2 stars

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) | directed by Tim Burton
US/Can release: Sep 30 2016
UK/Ire release: Sep 29 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate threat, violence, scary scenes)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    Yeah, I remember when Tim Burton had fresh ideas. Now the Tim Burton Look on a film has become so clichéd I expect it to show up as an After Effects plugin; one can spot it from a couple of frames of a trailer.

  • Matt Clayton

    Having seen this movie, I agree about the info dumps– Burton and Jane Goldman could’ve minimized those via montage or narration. As for Asa Butterfield, he feels miscast. Agree with you 100% on the wasted cameos by Dench, Dickens, Everett and Janney. Eva Green was the only one who rose to the challenge, and it was nice seeing her play a mentor for a change.

    After seeing the movie and then reading the book summary, the basic premise and setup is intact. But the radically changed ending is one of the few things about the film that I enjoyed. Now if the whole film was as much fun…

  • Okay, you liked the ending. So perhaps you can explain that huge plot hole I mentioned, the one in which…

    Jake gets from Blackpool to Florida on his own, without any money and without (presumably) his passport, which, since he is a minor, we can presume his father has in his possession.

    And since Jake has now travelled back in time (relative to his own timeline) to before his grandfather died, how does Jake explain the fact that there are now two Jakes? Or what happened to the Jake from this point in the timeline?


  • Matt Clayton

    I was referring to the climax right before that, where the Peculiars battling the Wights — that showed more humor and inventiveness. That whole conclusion confused me as well…Shouldn’t we see how Jake gets back to his dad? Does his parents simply fund his trip to Japan because his grandfather is alive? Does Burton think the audience can fill in the gaps? You are spot on on those.

    I don’t know if the ending was cut down severely in the editing room or that Burton said, “Hey, the audience is smart, they can figure it out.” If anything, the ending should’ve been less rushed.

  • Owen1120

    So… does this movie find a way for him to go back to Florida and still see the children? In the book, he purposefully chooses to run away from his family, especially his alcoholic dad, to help the peculiars and not live his boring life. Also, is Allison Janney’s character a wight?

  • LaSargenta

    Haven’t seen the movie, but, honestly, I felt that second plot hole existed in the book already.

    There were other plot holes, too, in the book. I found the book a bit dull, tbh, and wasn’t too excited by the idea of watching it as a movie. Felt thin.

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  • Allison Janey is…

    Samuel L. Jackson’s character in disguise.

    Jake’s dad is not an alcoholic in the movie, and Jake doesn’t seem to want to get away from his family. But in the end…

    Jake, after a brief return to Florida, does go back to 1940s England to hang with the peculiars.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Didn’t Jack Nicholson, 25 years ago, demonstrate that nothing good comes from there being Two Jakes?

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  • IntrepidNormal

    I’m still too disturbed about his tone deaf comments on diversity to even give this a chance. I thought Burton was better than that.

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