Ransom Riggs’ young adult novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children presents a peculiar challenge to moviemakers, and director Tim Burton and writer Jane Goldman grapple with it reasonably well for an hour or so before getting lost in a cloud of visual effects.
The challenge they don’t take on is how to disguise Riggs’ blatant imitation of the Harry Potter books; for them, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
The Harry here is Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), and like Harry, Jake has inherited a trait he’s totally unaware of. He gets hints of it from his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), who has filled Jake since childhood with tales of the outbreak of World War II, when he found refuge at a boarding school on an island off the coast of Wales. At this school, all the children had special talents—one was invisible, another levitated, and so on. Abe’s tales included leaving the school during the war and spending years fighting monsters. All of this, Jake and his father Frank (Chris O’Dowd) have always put down to approaching dementia, transforming Abe’s traumatic memories of escaping the holocaust into fairy tales to entertain his grandson.
But when Abe dies under horrible circumstances at his Florida tract home, Jake gets a glimpse of those monsters that traumatizes and confuses him. Seeking closure, Jake and his dad travel to that Welsh island, where Abe’s old school was destroyed, with no survivors, by German bombs on September 3, 1943.
Jake roams the school’s ruins one day, then the next he discovers his own peculiarity: not only can he see the invisible (and quite real) monsters his grandfather fought, but he can enter the time loop created by the old school’s headmistress, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green)—the time loop where it remains forever 1943 and the children are alive, never aging. To them, grandpa Abe has only just left, and they welcome Jake as his spitting image—especially Emma (Ella Purnell), the levitating girl and Abe’s long-ago sweetheart, who transfers her affections haltingly to Jake.
This sweet little cross-time romance should have been the heart of the movie, and even as it is, Butterfield and Purnell make the most of it. But this glimmering narrative thread gets lost in Riggs’ convoluted plot, which he concocted to fit an assortment of odd photographs he collected here and there, and in the even more confused and befuddling plot of the movie, which Goldman and Burton concocted to fit the wish list of their CGI artists.
By the end, confusion is almost total. Is it 1943 or 2016? Is Abe Portman alive or dead? Is the story over or just starting? Who cares?