Tim Burton’s cinema is one of outcasts and misfits trying to find their place in the world, yet as the director has become more firmly ensconced in the blockbuster machine, his films have lost their uniquely strange, soulful personality; they now resemble gigantic, CGI-ified products stamped with a consumer-grade version of his eerie eccentricity. Such, alas, continues to be the case with “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a by-the-books YA affair that resembles “X-Men: First Class” retrofitted for the tween Hot Topic set. The story of extraordinary adolescents pitted against a horde of eyeball-eating fiends intent on achieving immortality, this adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ children’s-lit novel offers up merely serviceable studio spectacle, minus any of Burton’s former malevolent mad-genius spirit.
‘Miss Peregrine’s’ boasts more than a few of its maker’s hallmarks, from Frankenstein-ian creatures and towering mansions to a cast of quirky goth-friendly characters displaced from not only society, but time itself. Those individuals are the charges of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), the nattily dressed, curlicue-coiffed owner of a boarding house on an island off the coast of Wales, and they include a girl named Emma (Ella Purnell) who needs iron boots to keep from floating away, a boy named Millard (Cameron King) who’s invisible, and twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell) who wear matching jumpsuits and masks to hide their Medusa-grade faces. Miss Peregrine herself can turn into a bird, though like her kids, she can’t escape her home, thanks to a complicated situation involving a “time loop” that keeps them infinitely reliving the same day – September 3, 1943, which originally ended with a Nazi bomb blowing up their house – as a means of protecting them from malevolent monsters (all spear-like limbs and tentacled mouths) led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson).
Before “Miss Peregrine’s” gets to its title character’s abode, it first spends considerable time with Jake (Asa Butterfield), a bland teenager whose grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) raised him on stories about his own experiences with Miss Peregrine, and who – at the moment of his death-by-monster – sets Jake upon a quest to find her. He eventually does, after traveling to Wales with his grumbling father (Chris O’Dowd) in tow, and Burton stages these introductory passages with a swiftness that helps him skim over pesky logistical questions, but also fails to create any sense of wonder or mystery. Whereas the director used to focus on mood more than mundane plot points, here he’s required to deliver mounds of magic-world bylaws, and the resultant action comes across as akin to countless other youth-oriented fantasy and sci-fi sagas, with revelations speeding at the screen so fast that everything feels preprogrammed, preordained, and thus inconsequential.
Much commotion ensues, first as Jake develops relationships with his peculiar new mates (primarily Emma, with whom he strikes up a dutiful, chaste romance), and then later once Mr. Barron discovers the whereabouts of Miss Peregrine’s residence, and sets in motion a plot to steal her power – and that of other shape-shifters, including Judi Dench in a perfunctory blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role – in order to live forever. The particulars of how that might take place, like many of the other details littered throughout “Miss Peregrine’s,” are complicated without being the least bit interesting. And for long stretches, the only thing propping up the overstuffed yet underwhelming proceedings are Green and Jackson, who manage to bring some larger-than-life colorfulness to roles which have been drawn in barely one dimension.
Burton concocts just enough inventive sights to mark the material as his own, and a brief sequence in which Emma clears out a sunken ship’s watery ballroom with her tremendous breath almost achieves the type of grand weirdness that used to come so easily to the auteur. That moment, however, is fleeting, and the rest of Burton’s imagery is of a surprisingly tame, toned-down spookiness. As with a climactic showdown at an outdoor carnival, the film regularly seems primed to provide the touchingly comical malevolence that made “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands” so distinctive – only to then fall back on special effects and combat that keep its action superficially energetic, but light on any atmospheric and thematic darkness that might have made it memorable. [C]