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A date with Tim Burton isn’t what it used to be; it hasn’t been for a long time. The outrageous visionary who took us to amazing places that can only be described as cinematic nirvana, with titles such as “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” to name my favorites, seems now permanently stuck in a slump the size of Osaka Castle.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is Burton’s latest, and apart from the obviously huge expense tag on production values and a glittering cast headed off by current Soulful Teen No. 1 Asa Butterfield, there’s really not much to get excited about here. Could it be the fault of the young-adult novel authored by Ransom Riggs on which the story is based and which (according to online accounts) isn’t really up Burton’s alley? Or was it Burton’s rumored break-up with longtime partner Helena Bonham Carter, who had originally been cast to play Miss Peregrine? Whatever the case, the question “Why?” kept popping up to distract me when I should have been absorbed in the story and getting lost in the visuals.

Still, think of the enormous difficulty of any whimsical or fantastical YA-targeted film that deploys real actors instead of anime characters. They run the huge risk of not turning out to be one of two things — “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games” — and though “Miss Peregrine” adroitly dips into these for inspiration and derivation, it fails to promote its own unique branding, as they say in marketing departments.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Misu Peregrine to Kimyo na Kodomotachi)
Rating
Run Time 127 mins
Language English
Opens FEB. 3

It’s also burdened by a top-heavy screenplay (penned by Jane Goldman) that’s taken it upon itself to explain every single narrative complication — and there are an awful lot of them, strewn about the story line like annoying signposts sporting dozens of arrows that lead nowhere. By the time you’ve tired yourself trying to decipher them, the movie has moved on — usually to an action segment that feels like it’s just been tacked on out of a sense of obligation.

Here’s what happens: Jake (Butterfield) is a lonely 16-year-old in Florida with an eccentric grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), who has filled his head with stories about a fantastic boarding school run by a Miss Peregrine, supporter of peculiar children. When Abe is killed under mysterious circumstances, Jake finds a postcard from Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), which triggers his desire to visit her school in Wales. Jake’s dad Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) accompanies him and the pair set out, only to discover that the school had been destroyed long ago and Miss Peregrine and the kids are gone. But when Jake returns alone the next day, the school is right there and he’s slipped back in time to the year 1943.

The peculiar children at the school possess a variety of unusual abilities or features — one has a mouth at the back of the head, another is invisible and Emma (Ella Purnell), soon to be Jake’s friend, has to wear lead shoes because she’s immune to gravity. Think of it like X-Men’s School for Gifted Youngsters, but with much younger kids. Miss Peregrine has kept the establishment suspended in a time loop, carefully tinkering with the details to maintain its delicate balance. On the day it is suspended in, a German plane had dropped a bomb on the school, so it has been in “Groundhog Day” mode for the past seven decades.

But now a grave danger looms: The evil Hollows, led by Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), are punching holes in the time loop so they can decimate the school and gobble up the kids’ eyes. And it is, of course, up to Jake to save them all.

“Miss Peregrine” takes its sweet time getting Jake acclimatized to his new circumstances, but kind of rushes over the battle scenes. Perhaps at this point Burton was hoping someone would come along to protect his own peculiarities, which are in peril of being swallowed up in the vortex of mainstream culture forever. Or perhaps it was already too late in the day.

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