The name Tim Burton and the title Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children sound almost synonymous, like the director was always meant to adapt this story, the word “peculiar” is a likely mirror image of how Burton sees the world. Some may even say that the connection between filmmaker and subject matter rather sounds typical, too obvious, or the makings of a film over-saturated in quirky dark fantasy. Although Burton was the obvious choice to visually adapt this story, the director clearly makes every effort to stay true to the story’s characters, themes, and built-in visual world, reigning in his own particular brand of whimsy just enough to make him and the film fit together snugly. Burton’s final product is a highly polished bundle of entertainment, and satisfyingly fills this year’s gap of much needed fantasy and escapism.
Miss Peregrine follows Jake (Asa Butterfield), a teenage boy who has lived his short life thus far believing his life was nothing but ordinary (sounds familiar, no?). Growing up, his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) told him fanciful stories about living in a home for peculiar children during the late 1930s and later fighting actual monsters during the war. After realizing that these stories might actually have been true and not dementia like he and his father (Chris O’Dowd) believed, Jake decides to travel to the children’s home to investigate his past once and for all. Jake eventually finds Abe’s peers and former headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) living in an undisturbed time-loop during 1943, with none of them having aged a single day. The inhabitants welcome Abe’s grandson with open arms, however, Jake’s discovery brings new dangers to the peculiar home, and his not-so-ordinary abilities make him the only person who can keep them safe.
There have already been taglines (by its own distributor, Fox) calling Miss Peregrine a spiritual combination of Harry Potter and X-Men. While these comparisons are somewhat valid, they may ultimately hurt the film’s chances of capturing audiences in a new way. On its own, this film is wholly Tim Burton and wholly Ransom Riggs (the bestselling novel’s author) and their combined worlds are exceptionally compelling. Interestingly enough, the film’s screenwriter, Jane Goldman, actually co-wrote the first two films in the X-Men reboot: First Class and Days of Future Past. There are moments in the film that similarly reflect the style of those scripts, such as the 1940s children travelling to modern-day Europe (one of the movie’s weaker plot elements), but the majority of the story follows its own unique trajectory.
Goldman finds plenty of moments to allow Burton’s stylistic devices to shine, leading the film to be a visual greatest hits of Burton’s film library. With an emphasis on Miss Peregrine as a manipulator of time (that being her peculiarity, aside from morphing in and out of bird form), comes the opportunity to make clocks, stop-watches, and other visual reminders of time its very own surrealist character (Alice in Wonderland, anyone?). In general, the remainder of the film harkens back to other stylistic elements found in Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, and his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake. None of it is tired, though, and instead reflects all of Burton’s best and most intriguing aesthetic qualities. This is true for all except the aforementioned scene where the children travel temporarily to 2016, creating an ill-fitting techno steampunk atmosphere where Burton’s visual direction takes a momentary detour. Other artistic liberties do work well on Burton’s behalf, though, such as the showcasing of each child’s peculiarity, like Emma’s (Ella Purnell, Kick-Ass 2) transformative manipulation of air, or Enoch’s (Finlay MacMillan) hair-raising talent for reanimation.
Most of the film’s cast fit in just as nicely as Burton to the story. The young star Asa Butterfield continues to mature before audiences, bringing the right amount of plucky spirit and sturdy leading man presence to the fore. Green is also clearly a stand out and will likely be a selling point for theatergoers. Building her career thus far largely on mysterious, spooky, and unhinged character acting, Green was the perfect choice for Miss Peregrine. The actress brings the character’s other-worldly and bird-like mannerisms to life while translating her signature eerie demeanor to an appropriately family-friendly level. It is only a shame that her character is benched for some of the film’s more action-packed sequences, where the plot then loses her magnetic presence.
Not quite as copacetic is the addition of Samuel L. Jackson as the film’s villain. The actor does add plenty of flare to the character where he is allowed, and proves to audiences that he didn’t just show up for a paycheck; however, his particular goonish villainy (outfitted with bleached hair and spiky teeth) somewhat distracts the film. There is an opportunity clearly missed to make the antagonist more haunting and disturbing (within the confines of the film’s PG-13 rating) and less cartoonish.
The film, while executed quite well by Burton, may elude some audience members for the film’s confused target audience and the fact that it is rated PG-13. Both the original novel and the movie adaptation are unfortunately in a sort of generational limbo. The plot is told from the perspective of a high school boy, but mainly features the stories of numerous young children (who are, in reality, over 70 years old) as well as just a few teenage peers, with the remaining roles reserved for Jake’s several adult mentors (his father, his grandfather, Miss Peregrine, and his therapist). The film faces the same internal crisis as the book, in that it doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be, and has a hard time finding that balance between the mature and innocent sides of the “peculiar” coin.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
If audience members allow themselves to be transported by Burton, leaving behind preconceived or advertised notions of Harry Potter and X-Men, they will find a film rich in storytelling, both visually and narratively. While the movie finds shaky ground during just a handful of scenes, the majority of Burton’s film hits the mark and serves as a positive testament to Burton’s legacy and stylistic standard. Although it is unclear whether this is meant as a story for young adults or for the family, its visual whimsy and pure entertainment value should, for the most part, be able to transcend critical doubts. Burton’s creativity ultimately soars, though, making it one of the year’s best fantasy outings, outperforming the likes of The BFG, The Jungle Book, or Alice Through the Looking Glass.