Not since M. Night Shymalan‘s The Visit has a relentlessly middling director made such a welcome return to form.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children doesn’t come close to Ransom Riggs‘s nuanced, wryly-humoured material (or the third of it I’d managed to read before seeing the film), but that’s the trade-off with a director whose style is so eye-poppingly oppressive that you have no choice but to repeatedly have it confirmed that you are, in fact, watching a Tim Burton film.
As the movie unfolds, you can play a game of spotting the trademarks: saucer-eyed, doll-faced young lead with ever-so-slight under-eye shadows (Ella Purnell), confident matriarch fantastically-dressed by Colleen Atwood (the always-nice-to-see Eva Green), pallid, awkward, muted, young Tim Burton male lead (Asa Butterfeld), high-contrast colours on everything, wildly imaginative monsters.
It’s the latter, along with Jane Goldman‘s decently-humoured script, that brings us back hints of ’80s grungegoth nostalgia. It’s the Tim Burton of old, and his best film since Beetlejuice. The sight of Samuel L Jackson gleefully tucking into a plate of children’s eyeballs is a, er…literal feast for the eyes. As is a fleet of uniquely-accessorised skeleton soldiers waging a war on violent slapstick against giant, blade-limbed monster-hunters. It’s a darkly comic, bafflingly wondrous spectacle of a film.
Not that it’s perfect. Under the goth-gloss lurk some pretty shallow characters, papery ghosts of the deep-backstoried versions of the book. Not that they’re given much to do or say other than be exhibits in their peculiarity to the film’s protagonist, Jacob – who, we’re told, bears life-saving powers that none of the other Peculiars have. So that’s his destiny mapped out for him. Not that restoring his character’s agency would make a blind bit of difference, because he’s fallen head-over-16-year-old heels in love with his grandfather’s permanently-teenaged ex, who doesn’t spend much of the film grappling with the unhealthy weirdness that Jacob is the spitting image of the boy she never got over. It’s a frustratingly unwelcome contrast to the closing scenes of the arguably-inferior Alice in Wonderland.
Enough of the movie is enjoyable. It’s light-hearted. It’s decently-paced. It’s cosplay-ready. Chris O’Dowd should genuinely win an award for converting his Irish accent to a flawless American one. White-eyed, sharp-fanged Samuel L Jackson is both hilarious and terrifying as the film’s single-minded antagonist. Fans of the book (who’ve completed the book), might be even more disappointed than I. It’s a trailer to the viewing experience of a vibrant painting, but not much else.