Macabre plot just off the mark

Eva Green stars as Miss Peregrine and Asa Butterfield stars as Jake in Tim Burton’s ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’
Eva Green stars as Miss Peregrine and Asa Butterfield stars as Jake in Tim Burton’s ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’

By the outside world’s standards, the residents of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are an unexpected bunch. But in a Tim Burton film, they all feel a little – what’s the word? – conventional.

There’s a boy with a swarm of bees living inside his mouth, a Shirley Temple poppet with monstrous jaws on the nape of her neck, two masked, chittering twins dressed all in white, and a sullen tee n who brings clockwork homunculi to life with preserved animal’s hearts. You know: the usual.

Since the Beetlejuice days of old, Burton has become so devoted to a particular style of creepy-ornate outsider fable that nearly three decades on, oddness has become the least surprising thing he can do.

His 18th film may not be an original Burton creation, but the fact that it’s been adapted from a young adult novel that was described on its release as “Tim Burton-esque” suggests that the director’s creative wanderings have become a perpetual, air-conditioned traipse around the Pop Gothic Discount Barn, without a breath of risk to ruffle the routine.

This is a pity, because cinema-goers seem ready to love another Burton film. (I know I am.)

The original Miss Peregrine book – the first in a series of three by the American author Ransom Riggs – is categorically not that. Adapted by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, The Woman in Black), it’s a tale of an insular Florida lad, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), who’s spurred by the death of his beloved oddball grandfather (Terence Stamp) to visit an orphanage on an island off the Welsh coast that figured in the fairy tales he spun in Jake’s childhood.

Naturally, the stories turn out to be true, which is where Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green) comes in, puffing on a pipe and enunciating every line with a winning, Julie Andrews snip. She’s the shape-shifting guardian of a brood of “peculiars” (imagine the X-Men as Edwardian primary schoolers) whose eyeballs are prized by the hollowgasts – a race of faceless, long-limbed ghouls created by Samuel L Jackson’s Dr Mengele-like fiend.

Peculiars seek refuge in “time loops” – single days in history that magically repeat ad infinitum – and at this point in the plot summary, perhaps it’s best to just nod and see what happens next.

Burton’s film is so swamped by the detail of the fantasy world in which it takes place, that every crucial passage of dialogue comes encrusted in a carapace of jargon it’s left up to us to chip through on the hoof.

Unlike in, say, Edward Scissorhands, where the lead character’s weirdness had the immediate sting of recognisability, the Miss Peregrine’s peculiarity stems from a sprawling conspiracy of creatures and concepts that Goldman’s screenplay never quite wrestles into focus.

Meanwhile, the historical subtext that might have made the stakes of Jake’s adventure more easily graspable goes maddeningly under-explored.

Though it’s never stated outright, Jake’s grandfather Abe is a Polish Jew who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s – it’s no coincidence that hollowgast is a near-homophone for Holocaust – which casts the peculiars’ ghettoised existence and the hunt for their tormentors in a chillingly familiar light.

Yet the film seems either afraid of this angle or uninspired by it.

At least cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel gives the trip some serious visual glister, and in worthwhile 3D, too. Every quadrant on the Burton mood board is ravishingly ticked off, from cheerfully drab Floridian bungalows to elder-flower-and-wisteria-toned monochrome thickets – and perhaps best of all, a barnacle-encrusted ghost ship docked at Blackpool’s North Pier, summoned from the silty depths by Jake’s peculiar sweetheart Emma (Ella Purnell).

Like the glorious passing tributes to the skin-creeping creations of Jan Svankmajer and Ray Harryhausen, two artists who exerted an enormous influence on the young Burton’s work, these are all delightful in isolation – but exactly the kind of storied parts this film ends up feeling very much less than the sum of.

It’s another flick through a familiar and by-now bulging scrapbook, but it leaves you craving less – and more.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, directed by Tim Burton and starring Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell and Judi Dench is showing at Boardwalk, Walmer Park, Hemingways, Bridge and Baywest cinemas this weekend.

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