The central setting of the new Tim Burton movie, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, is an abandoned orphanage, overgrown with vegetation and situated on the lonelier side of a small Welsh island. Except the building isn’t abandoned, not really. Behind its dilapidated walls, a makeshift family of superpowered youths, or “Peculiars,” stay forever young. For these outcasts, every day is the same day: September 23, 1943. And every night, they gather on the front lawn and slip gas masks over their faces to watch a fleet of German aircrafts fly overhead, dropping the bomb that would destroy them all, if they didn’t possess the power to freeze it in midair, turn back the hands of the clock, and start the day all over again. They’re stuck in a loop at the edge of oblivion: a clan of lost boys and girls, living out their final hours on repeat.
That’s a morbidly poignant (or perhaps poignantly morbid) idea, and it’s hardly the only one crammed into Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. Some of these ideas are not, strictly speaking, original. Having spent a career putting a profitably macabre stamp on every old movie, book, comic book, TV show, stage play, and even trading card series he could acquire the rights to, Hollywood’s most adaptation-happy oddball has finally borrowed in bulk. His latest baroque blockbuster is a greatest-hits hodgepodge, mashing together X-Men, Peter Pan, Groundhog Day, Harry Potter, Back To The Future, and the director’s own Big Fish and Beetlejuice. But what the storytelling lacks in innovation it often makes up for in sheer quantity—the endless supply of bizarre stuff Burton packs into two convoluted hours. And thematically, there’s plenty to nibble on, too: Not to put too fine of a point on it, but this is a story that begins with an old man reminiscing about a group of persecuted outsiders he knew in 1940s Europe who will never have the chance to grow up and who are hunted by a relentless species of tentacled slender men called Hollowghasts.
Technically, there’s only one direct inspiration for his crazy-quilt fantasia: a young-adult bestseller by Ransom Riggs. (After The Fault In Our Stars, here’s a teen-lit tale that interacts with the Anne Frank story in a less literal but more impactful way.) The chief novelty of the novel was the series of black-and-white vernacular photographs pasted on many of its pages—vintage trick photos Riggs amassed over the years, then used as the foundation for his plot. That unique approach is much more interesting than the narrative it ended up spawning, in which awkward 16-year-old Jake (Asa Butterfield) mourns the loss of his mysteriously murdered grandfather (Terence Stamp), who spent his dying breath swearing by the far-fetched stories he told about his youth. Inspired to investigate for himself, Jake travels from sunny Florida to foggy Wales, pokes around the rundown mansion where gramps claims to have once lived, and then stumbles backward in time into an eternally repeating day, like the title characters of Jacques Rivette’s Céline And Julie Go Boating.
It’s easy to see what attracted Burton to the project. The orphanage is an island of misfit toys, another of the director’s melancholic freak shows. One of these Edward Gorey wannabes, Emma (Ella Purnell), would float away like a balloon if she didn’t wear lead shoes. Another boasts a gnashing maw in the back of her head. Still another has a literal belly of bees. The superpowered moppets are looked after by a distaff Xavier, the eponymous Miss Peregrine, played with a now customary camp relish by Eva Green, whose arch vamping makes her the femme fatale of Burton’s wildest theater-kid dreams. (If their split now means that Helena Bonham Carter will no longer be the filmmaker’s go-to leading lady, he’s found a new star to drape in Colleen Atwood’s extravagant Goth evening wear.) Mostly, the source material allows for copious, Burton-friendly grotesquerie, teasing the boundaries of PG-13: an army of Ray Harryhausen skeleton warriors; a dead child reanimated like a marionette; a platter of detached eyes, slurped up like spaghetti and meatballs.
For a while, Miss Peregrine’s gets by on such ghoulishness. The problem is that everything fun and resonant about the movie (like a boy whose eye works as a movie projector, unspooling his dreams onto the wall) ends up feeling rather ornamental. That’s because, for all of Burton’s twisted touches, the film adheres to the storytelling template of the worst YA: the endless mythology, the tired boy-meets-girl romance, the boring self-actualization arc. Peregrine’s home itself, frozen in time’s amber, is such a metaphorically rich backdrop that the movie suffers every time it leaves it to catch up with Jake’s birdwatching dad (Chris O’Dowd, rocking a very shaky American accent) or to force these pasty new mutants into a confrontation with a brotherhood of evil Peculiars, led by a routinely villainous Samuel L. Jackson. Putting moist-eyed YA poster child Asa Butterfield in the lead doesn’t help matters—too often he’s a blank slate of adolescent angst—though the fault lies more clearly with dunking such a dully ordinary character into a sea of glorious weirdos. (It’s Hellboy’s useless audience surrogate all over again.)
On the continuum of contemporary Burton, enchantment is relative. Although it goes heavy on CGI (including an impressively de-aged Stamp), Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children isn’t the green-screen eyesore that so many of the director’s carnival rides turn into; it creates a real physical space for its gifted youngsters to caper through. So much of this material lights Burton’s perverse imagination (his clearest onscreen stand-in isn’t Jake, but the teenage mad scientist who brings little handmade monsters to life) and even seems to invigorate his sometimes dodgy sense of humor, as when he shock cuts from the darkly elaborate opening-credits sequence—itself a rare delight in this day and age—to a shot of the tranquil Florida coast. But as in the similarly compromised Dark Shadows, the old-school-Burton pleasures of Miss Peregrine’s are eventually subsumed by the demands of franchise-building, including a superhero melee climax and a cop-out conclusion that refuses to hold Jake to the Sophie’s choice he’s forced to make. So long as he was cobbling together a movie from other movies, couldn’t Burton have borrowed an actual ending?