There are a lot of details involved when a book, or a series of books, becomes a movie. A director must make calls not only on which elements of the original plot will remain in the final cut, but which will change, and in what ways. A director adapting a novel or serial story also needs to consider its cast of characters, and how they will be represented onscreen.
The Ransom Riggs Peculiar Children series is an unusual tale, so it is no surprise that it appealed to Tim Burton as a film project. Imbued with many visually interesting elements ready to be expressed with Burton’s special brand of horrifically delectable special effects, it should have been a truly fantastic film.
And yet, the most peculiar thing about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is that it falls flat in so many ways. One major, glaring issue is the treatment of its characters – particularly compared to their novel counterparts. Protagonist Jake Portman, in the books a boy insecure about his perceived ordinariness among truly extraordinary children, is in the hands of actor Asa Butterfield a wooden, practically emotionless boy whose maturity and no-nonsense heroism doesn’t feel earned for most of the film. Even taking the film at face value, following the story without comparing it to the book series, however, the other peculiar children act like…..well, children. For a group of characters stuck in a time-loop, who are therefore in reality old men and women stuck in the bodies of young children and teenagers, the portrayals don’t feel natural the way they are presented and we lose who these characters really are. And without the additional background and exposition we receive in the novels, that can make for challenging storytelling here.
This is to say nothing of the antagonist of the film, for whom Samuel L. Jackson adopts a hammy, cartoon villainy which makes him very difficult to take even remotely seriously as a threat to the children. Miss Peregrine herself appears to be Eva Green’s impression of Helena Bonham Carter, and the rest of the cast seem not to know exactly what sort of tone the story wants to carry.
The film itself is visually intriguing, full of all of the creepy cinematic delights one expects from Tim Burton. But beyond this, it doesn’t seem to have decided whether it wants to be an outlandish children’s fantasy adventure or whether it wants to mine the drama of its relationships and themes of what it means to be ‘peculiar’ in the world. As such, it spends not nearly enough time expositing either idea to its full potential, and ends up a mishmash of half-baked story components and broken character interpretations.
Scenes wherein the effects are at their strongest are unfortunately among the weakest scenes, thematically, in the movie – most feel pointless at the very least, outright silly and ridiculous at the worst. Burton seems to want to play with as many visual ideas as the novels might contain, but he is limited within the framework of the story actually being told in his film. Many of the effects are therefore shoehorned in, one has the sense, to give this film its Burton with a splash of Edward Gorey sensibility.
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If Miss Peregrine is approached at face value, it has a tendency to become convoluted and confusing, and much of the mythos of the original stories is lost to a lot of visual showmanship and odd, out-of-place details. If approached as an adaptation to the Ransom Riggs books, it is a disappointing mess, wherein characters are switched around or made into composites of different ones, the story has little impact, and the characters themselves appear not to care much one way or the other what happens to them in the end. Had it been set up with the time and care it needed to build the world of its peculiar children, it could have broken the boundaries of the ordinary – but as it is, it’s just another day living in Florida, working at your father’s Smart Aid store.
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