Tim Burton’s celebration of enigma lacks much peculiarity, but screenwriter Jane Goldman injects some refreshing wit.
Tim Burton, who I have previously declared The Most Overrated American Director of Our Times, has perhaps never made a film that sounds as utterly Tim Burtonesque as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Making it all the more surprising that Peculiar is the least Burtonesque film Burton’s delivered in quite some time.
The film, based upon a novel which was itself based upon a collection of creepy old photographs (SO Burtonesque), begins in modern day America, with teenage Jake (Asa Butterfield) introduced to the concept of “peculiar children” by his grandfather (Terence Stamp). The American suburbs is where Burton is at his best; his few standout films (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) sizzle with the dreary claustrophobia of urban sprawl, and Peculiar is injected with some much-needed feeling early on as a result. Soon, however, the action moves to Wales and Burton re-embraces the Anglophilia that corrupts so much of his work with thoroughly uninteresting characters.
Eva Green’s titular headmistress of the Home For Peculiar Children (essentially a public domain version of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngers) is one such figure: lacking any nuance, Green brings her usual mix of empty eroticism and dated glamour to a vapid role. Strong women have never been Burton’s forte. Green, an apparent surrogate for his usual leading lady Helena Bonham Carter, doesn’t help.
One would expect better of screenwriter Jane Goldman, who- to be fair- has her distinct fingerprints all over this film. From the wannabe-rapper Welsh youths whom Jake encounters to Samuel L. Jackson’s cackling villain, there are several shared elements with 2015’s superb Kingsman (and the earlier Stardust) on display. What aspects of Peculiar‘s generally overwrought, ill-judged plot do work are likely to Goldman’s credit. What doesn’t work is so obviously Burton’s fault. American children are cruel and cold; their British counterparts warm and ingenious: these are the Burton clichés usually ignored amidst the gothic design (which is surprisingly lacking in Peculiar). The monsters that attack the children (all of whom are caucasian; few of whom are actually that peculiar in appearance) are more Marvel than Burton, and the last-act action is appallingly indistinct.
Peculiar Children preaches a message of embracing differences and finding a place to fit in, but- ironically- chooses the conventional over the enigmatic and concludes without having figured out its place in the cinematic world.