A mad young inventor in a loft constructs living creatures from spare parts. A teenage girl wears asbestos gloves to prevent herself from lighting fires with her hands. A small boy has a right eye which can project his dreams onto a wall. These and other shunned oddments of society live in a neo-gothic house on a remote Welsh island, all watched over by the imposing yet good-natured Miss Peregrine – who you might recognise as Eva Green smoking a pipe.
There’s much in the novels by Ransom Riggs that seems tailor made for Tim Burton’s cheerfully macabre sensibility, and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children arrives on the silver screen like an X-Men comic drawn by Edward Gorey. Viewers familiar with such movies as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Dark Shadows will recognise Burton’s handiwork here; Miss Peregrine is, in visual terms, a world away from the sterile CGI of his lesser movies, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and particularly 2010’s Alice In Wonderland, which felt like the work of a filmmaker going through the motions.
Asa Butterfield stars as Jake, a shy, bored Florida teen who still has the childhood stories of his grandfather (Terence Stamp) rattling around in his head. Grandpa would regale Jake with his tales of an orphanage full of strange children, where he grew up before leaving to serve as a soldier in World War II. Despite the reservations of his parents – played by Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens – Jake travels to the island and, through a string of developments too complex to elaborate on here, winds up at Miss Peregrine’s home back in 1943.
What follows is a fairly typical Hero’s Journey-type adventure, with Jake the newcomer among a coterie of odd characters which also includes an invisible boy and identical twins who wear cloth masks. Then there’s Miss Peregrine herself, who can turn into, well, a peregrine. Gradually, Jake learns more about the history of the orphanage and his grandfather’s life there, and soon finds a kindred spirit in Emma (Ella Purnell), a girl who has to wear lead boots to prevent her from floating into the ether.
After a slow start in a studiously drab Florida, the movie finds its momentum when Jake arrives at Miss Peregrine’s orphanage. Burton clearly loves the characters Jake finds there, and revels in such odd reveals as a cute Hollywood-style moppet with a ravenous hidden side, or the brief yet unsettling fights between the creatures the boy in the attic creates (Enoch, played by Finlay MacMillan), which recall the stop-motion work of the Quay brothers.
The acting and cast are good value, too, with Green on winning form as the home’s eccentric mother hen, Butterfield dependably wide-eyed and plucky as the hero, and Ella Purnell a particular standout as Emma, whose performance is akin to Winona Ryder’s delicate turn in Edward Scissorhands. Look out, too, for small roles from Judie Dench and Rupert Everett – the latter showing up as a dapper photographer.
Burton seems to run out of creative steam in the third act, which switches location and makes a stab at some superhero-lite action sequences. Film buffs will note the passing nods to Ray Harryhausen in some of the special effects, but the final third feels oddly flat and disjointed, as though the action was foisted on a director who just wanted to make a romantic horror comedy. Indeed, at well over two hours, Miss Peregrine is glaringly overlong, and hardly helped by an exposition-heavy performance from Samuel L Jackson, which is fun at first but soon outstays its welcome. (Some odd narrative jumps might even hint at some late reshoots here.)
Despite all this, Burton’s Miss Peregrine is too good-natured to dismiss entirely. Younger viewers may enjoy the movie’s flashes of imagination and Doctor Who-esque moments of fright. Older movie-goers, meanwhile, will appreciate the bits where Burton displays some of the guileless anarchy that lit up such films as Batman Returns or Frankenweenie.
Plus there’s the crossbow-wielding, pipe-smoking Eva Green, whose eccentric turn is almost worth the price of mission alone.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is out in UK cinemas on the 29th September.