Tim Burton, best known for movies like Edward Scissorhands (and more recently for cramming his foot into his mouth like an oblivious white guy), has not had the most critically revered filmography of late. While critics argue about the quality of his more recent films, everyone agrees that the name “Tim Burton” guarantees the film will have his signature creepy style, replete with playful grossness. I imagine that when they needed to attach a director to this bizarre IP for a film adaptation, he was the first person they called.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Burton were charged with adapting Ransom Riggs’ YA books to a charming film, presumably for the under-eighteen crowd. Though both can be credited for trying, the fact is that the film is a narrative flop, visually muddled, and surprisingly, unduly boring.
Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is living in Florida with a garbage dad (Chris O’Dowd for some reason) and an extremely busy mom. As neither are great parents, he is especially close to his grandfather, an eccentric Polish fellow named Abe (Terence Stamp). When Jake was growing up, Abe told him stories about the kids he grew up with in a Welsh Orphanage and their peculiar powers. Emma (Ella Purnell) was lighter than air, Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) could animate corpses and toys, Olive (Lauren McCrostie) could control fire, and so on, all of them watched over by the headmistress, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, using a carTOONish acCENT). Abe reveals that slenderman monsters with tentacle tongues (yes, seriously) forced him to leave the orphanage, but that he has never stopped caring about his childhood friends.
Naturally, as a youngster Jake tried to share these stories with others, and was informed that there were monsters that caused his Polish grandfather to flee in the 1940s, but they were Nazis and not slendermen. This adds an entire layer of subtext to this film that I can’t even begin to explain without giving myself a headache. Point being, disaffected, friendless teenager Jake sees a villain with milky white eyes (Samuel L. Jackson) on his way to watching his grandfather die, prompting him to find this strange orphanage. This brings him to Wales, where the Peculiars reside in a single day of 1943 that they live over and over again (right before a German bomb drops on the house), simply called “a loop.” Here he hooks up with his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend (nobody addresses how weird this is), and finds himself directly in the path of slendermen with tentacle tongues that are invisible to everyone but him.
You’d think a girl who floats like a balloon and a pair of medusa twins would lend themselves to great visuals, but the film regrettably only has a handful. Tim Burton, bless him, has apparently forgotten how to work in color palettes that are not varying shades of grey and blue, as Florida has London-style fog the night of Jake’s grandfather’s death. Even the 1943 loop, the brightest location in the film, submits to shades of grey and a sensation of the dreary the second they head indoors, as heaven forbid even a single earnest joy unmarred by the creepy or the grim find its way into this film.
At least that aspect of the film is consistent, however, unlike this film’s approach to portraying its various friendly monster kids. For example, when Enoch uses his sweater vest necromancy powers to bring two nasty little Sid-in-Toy-Story-esque dolls to life, they fight in stuttering stop-motion until one skewers the heart out of the other; when he uses it later to bring a skeleton army to life in the most boring skeleton army sequence ever made, they are smooth and silky CGI knocking into one another like boneheads. What was the point of that stop motion? For Burton to remind us that he just really likes it? It’s completely out of place with the rest of the film, and the fact they skip its use later means we can’t even attribute the odd, jerky appearance of the reanimated creatures to Enoch’s powers.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Eva Green’s Kooky Orphan Mansion is that with the story of the children shunned by society you’d think there would be infinite opportunities for poignant moments, yet none present themselves. Born with abilities that forever set them apart, orphaned from their families, condemned to living the same day over and over again forever, these children should be struggling with the constraints of eternal childhood. They’re not. With the exception of Emma’s occasional pouts, none of them seem troubled by eternal stagnancy beyond occasional boredom. Their boredom echoes our own, as the film is paced like a leisurely Sunday walk, even in the “exciting” moments.
There is one single moment in this film with something like genuine feeling. As the peculiar kiddos evidence some measure of independence, Miss Peregrine watches from afar. For a moment, an odd smile crosses her face; that heartbreaking, bittersweet pride that is the province of caretakers who have realized their children no longer need them. Abruptly, she then morphs into a blue falcon, and joins them. This one single moment was the highlight of the film, and by contrast serves to make the rest of the film look even worse, a subtle reminder that Eva Green was criminally underused.
There is more that could be said, but it would just be beating a dead kid used as a puppet by another peculiar kid (yeah, that happens). This movie’s existence points to studios seizing upon any pre-existing intellectual property they think they can wring a dime out of, and to Tim Burton’s imagination sputtering as it runs on fumes of the creativity that once fueled him. For those asking, “can Burton make another great film?” the answer is maybe, but it sure as shit isn’t this one.Liked This? Share It!