Not long after the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was published in 2011, it started drawing comparisons to Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. On the one hand, many popular young-adult books get compared to one of those series at some point. But on the other, it made a lot of sense: Miss Peregrine is at its heart a dark, Gothic-tinged story about an ordinary boy discovering an extraordinary dimension to his life, one that whisks him away to a marvelous new world populated with marvelous inhabitants.
Given all the eerie fantasy elements at work, it’s little surprise then that Tim Burton was tasked with directing the film adaptation of Ransom Riggs’s first Miss Peregrine book. The director seems completely at home telling a story about a an enchanted wartime children’s orphanage, terrifying invisible monsters, and waif-like youths with giant eyes. The result is 124 minutes worth of CGI-embellished, time-traveling adventure that’s ambitious in scope and exasperating in execution. Part of that is because of the sheer amount of magical logic and backstory there is to explain, and the film’s wildly veering tone and pace. But perhaps most lacking in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is something the best children’s movies always have—a genuine emotional center. Or, put more simply, heart.
The film follows Jake Portman (played by an uninspired Asa Butterfield), a regular Joe Teenager living in suburban Florida with his awful parents and working a glum supermarket job. His banal existence lies in direct contrast to the exciting stories he heard growing up from his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), who as a child was sent from his home in Poland to live on a Welsh island during World War Two. Jake eventually dismissed them as fantastic tall tales (despite the intriguing photographic evidence his grandpa offered). But these stories about monsters and special children suddenly seem like they might hold some dark truth to them after a strange tragedy befalls his family.
All this set-up early on in Miss Peregrine feels rushed and too exposition-heavy to make viewers care. After a few false starts, Jake ends up in Wales hunting down the mysterious children’s home, and in a creepy turn of events, finds it. Running the facility is Miss Peregrine herself, played by Eva Green, who adopts bird-like tics and speaks in a clipped but kind sort of way. Then there are her young charges known as “peculiars,” who have a wide variety of intriguing (but not always useful) powers: superhuman strength, invisibility, the ability to control air, the ability to project dreams through one’s eyes, the ability to host living bees inside one’s body. Their oddities are indeed remarkable, but as Jake, Butterfield beholds his new companions with all the awe of someone feigning polite interest in dinner-party small talk.
Now for some of the good: Miss Peregrine has some truly frightening imagery, the kind likely to brand nightmares into the minds of younger viewers. There’s a giant Cthulhu-Slenderman hybrid monster with tentacle-tongues and scythe-like hands. Mute twins wearing identical clown-like costumes. Eyeless corpses, and shelves filled with jarred organs, and a dead boy who, unfortunately, can come to life under certain circumstances. As the good-versus-evil stakes of the film become clearer in the second half, there are more action sequences to inject some much-needed suspense. A climactic battle—set in a crowded, snow-blanketed theme park, scored to electronic dance music—is a particularly cathartic highlight (one that almost feels pulled from the Swedish black comedy Force Majeure).
Rounding out the cast are a few surprising faces. Allison Janney has a cameo as Jake’s therapist Dr. Golan (who’s a man in the novel), and Judi Dench makes a brief appearance as a long-lost ally of Miss Peregrine. Samuel L. Jackson plays the film’s antagonist, a power-hungry, time-hopping Big Bad whose appeal will depend heavily on the audience’s appetite for exaggerated villainy mixed with juvenile comedy. The campy, sentimental turn the film eventually takes may feel odd for a movie that began with a fairly serious discussion about real-life monsters—and how horrifying creatures can function as metaphors for evil for traumatized children and adults alike. (Especially meaningful in the context of Grandpa Portman’s lucky escape from the Nazis.)
At its best, Miss Peregrine is a flawed but acceptable thrill ride, ideal for those content to be led through a spooky, beautiful labyrinth that more often than not makes little sense. Story mechanics aside, Miss Peregrine does have undeniable visual appeal: Burton takes care to shoot the dreary but lovely Welsh countryside, the vintage charm of the orphanage, even the samey Florida suburbs. But this beauty is all superficial, as is the love the film has for its most important characters. The young peculiars have names—Bronwyn, Victor, Emma, Millard, Enoch—but they don’t get much by way of backstory or personality. Despite the movie’s insistence that they are special, Miss Peregrine ultimately reduces them to the very thing the world rejected them for: their peculiarities. It’s a sad, quiet failure, and one the film can’t make up for with pretty seascapes and cool monsters.