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Review: ‘Peculiar’ is particularly apt for film by creep-out king Burton

  • 20TH CENTURY FOX

    Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) takes aim at her powerful enemies.

  • 20TH CENTURY FOX

    Jake (Asa Butterfield) makes sure Emma (Ella Purnell) stays relatively down-to-earth.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

PG-13 (2:07)

**

Opens today

As he enters his fourth decade as a feature film director, it’s getting easier to imagine Tim Burton as a character in a Tim Burton movie.

You can envision him high on a mountain, with wild graying hair, tinkering with a steam-powered camera to shoot his next release. Or maybe he’s hunched over in the shadows, plotting his next twisted career move, because harvesting children’s nightmares is the only way to keep his dark heart beating.

Both explanations work for “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a Burton film that mines the romantic fable elements of “Edward Scissorhands,” while pushing the disturbing limits of a film that seems to be marketed to small children, even if it isn’t really intended for them.

It’s a well-composed and stylish but also confounding film, with sinister edges and a bloated plot to match the marquee-filler of a title. Mainstream audiences may be frustrated, especially if skittish young children are tagging along. The second half in particular just keeps going and going, adding layers of tangents, false endings and terrifying imagery.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is based on the 2011 book by Ransom Riggs, which is in turn inspired by a series of old photographs, showing children with supernatural — labeled here as “peculiar” — powers.

Burton’s young hero is Jake (Asa Butterfield), raised by two loser parents, and his fantastic grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp). The boy and his elder become attached, and Abe’s stories give Jake a sense of wonder, until Jake is swayed by his father. That scene, where Jake and Abe lose their bond, is one of the best in the movie and a foreshadowing of more heartbreak to come.

After tragedy strikes, Jake vacations in Wales, discovering an abandoned orphanage and the peculiar children, who have a complicated relationship with space and time. A mystery unfolds, a young love develops, and monsters arrive. But it’s hard to choose what is more unnerving: the tentacle-mouthed demons attacking, or the peculiar children themselves. Two masked twins are particularly creepy, especially with a payoff reminiscent of the “Large Marge” scene in Burton’s first major film, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” — the source of Generation X nightmares that continue into middle age.

“Peculiar Children” author Riggs and filmmaker Burton seem to be brothers of a different mother, aligned in their belief that it’s perfectly OK — and maybe even healthy — to scare young people. But the most intensely frightening scenes are also the least interesting. As the pace speeds up, gimmickry replaces human connection, until Burton returns to form with a rousing final 10 minutes.

The demons are poorly conceived and executed, looking like rejects from a video game. Samuel L. Jackson is little more than a stage prop as the chief bad guy, covered in makeup with sharp teeth, playing the part for comedy instead of menace.

Eva Green as the shape-shifting Miss Peregrine is much better, exhibiting wit, whimsy and a touch of insanity that fits the motherly character. The lack of a role for Johnny Depp to suck up all the air allows the others to breath. Stamp is especially excellent; along with a fine performance, the rest of his wonderful career looms over the movie like a totem, much like the Vincent Price casting in “Scissorhands.”

Anticipate an equal number of people in your theater asking for their money back with a crying child in their arms, and sticking around to watch the movie a second time. Know which camp you fall in ahead of time, and this offbeat film will yield some rewards.

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