In the tidal wave of recent young adult fictions that have made the jump to the big screen, the one constant in all shadings and theatrics, from vampires to dystopias, remains the same: you are not ordinary; you are, in fact, quite extraordinary. This week’s flawed but very appealing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children also subscribes to this ironic conformity. However, unlike all other YA adaptations, Miss Peregrine is also directed by Tim Burton, who even at his most restrained and measured is still discreetly disobedient. Perhaps even more so, as he must force his macabre sensibilities through the cracks of what could have otherwise been a rather straightforward, studio affair.
To be sure, Burton remains one of the most creative and distinct auteur voices to come out of the Hollywood system in the 1980s and ‘90s, making a litany of now highly regarded classics that often play to adults and children alike, despite their heightened gothic wackiness. But as of late, Burton has struggled to match the altitudes of his earliest, overcast daydreams, with his last truly great all-ages film probably being Big Fish in 2003. Curiously, Miss Peregrine shares many similarities to that picture since it again deals with sons and despondent fathers divided between a realm of boring “normalcy” and imaginative fantasy. It also feels like the director trying to shake off a recent rut.
While Miss Peregrine is no new masterpiece—it is much too beholden to its genre’s busy formula for that—it is also a decidedly refreshing picture for both the filmmaker and audiences who have recently been pummeled by superheroes, sequels, and reboots. Unto itself, Peregrine’s onscreen home is a familiar locale, yet it is still one where all family members can marvel (or squirm) at the sight of Samuel L. Jackson eating the eyeballs of murdered children like they’re escargot. These days, that has to count for something.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is based on a novel of the same name by Ransom Riggs. In the tale, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is a 16-year-old wallflower and malcontent who lives in what is presumably the most hellish place on Earth to Tim Burton: suburban Florida. Stuck in the land of palm trees and perpetual Hawaiian shirts, Jake yearns to be as heroic and adventurous as his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), a Polish immigrant who fought for the RAF in World War II and now regales his grandson with memories of a mysterious orphanage for “peculiar” children with magical abilities, all of whom were watched over by the regal yet spirited Miss Peregrine.
After his grandfather dies under mysterious circumstances—supposedly a heart attack even though Jake found him devoid of eyeballs in the dark, and with a mysterious giant shadow wandering off in the distance—Jake becomes obsessed with discovering Miss Peregrine’s school, which was located on a foggy island near Wales. Eventually, his sad sack father, Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), reluctantly takes his son there to give him closure, but they only discover a burned out husk of a mansion that was destroyed along with everyone inside during a Nazi bombing raid in 1943. Nevertheless, Jake soon has visions of what might be ghosts that match his grandfather’s tales, including a girl who’s so light she can float on the air (Ella Purnell) and another whose hands are so hot that they incinerate all that she touches (Lauren McCrostie).
Finally, there is even Miss Peregrine herself (the invaluable Eva Green), who beckons Jake back in time since she, like her wards, is peculiar and can both turn into a bird (a peregrine to be exact) and control time. By creating a “loop,” the headmistress keeps her children eternally young by replaying the same day in 1943—the one before the bombs fell. Essentially, she and her children are stuck in a kind of Groundhog Day eternity, but it’s still better than what waits in the outside world where monstrous “Hollows” hunt the children, eager to gobble their eye sockets up in order to regain their long lost humanity and immortality.
Admittedly, I have never read Riggs’ novel, which is purported to be based on actual Victorian and early 20th century trick photography images of children with mysterious powers. While the movie also includes some of these photos during the opening credits, the film itself eschews shadows and gray skies for an often vibrant, blue buoyancy to every second that we’re in Miss Peregrine’s ethereal 1943.
Whether this is from the pages or not, the choice to create a primary color coded realm is also surprisingly where Burton comes most alive. The first act of the movie, which involves Jake suffering through the loss of his grandfather and exploring the mystery of Peregrine’s ruins, feels wholly like a formality for both the filmmaker and his movie. Jane Goldman ably conveys a battalion’s worth of exposition in all three acts with her brisk screenplay, yet the moment the movie stops being purely coming-of-age checked boxes, and transitions into something truly worthwhile, is when Butterfield and the camera crossover into Peregrine’s loop.
Once in ’43, there is still an overabundance of thick information involving “Hollows” and every individual’s ostensible “peculiarities” (superpowers), but there is also a playful mischievousness that’s slightly perverse, and certainly more alive than Burton’s last four films. The windswept greenery of the British Isles often brings to mind Hammer Films’ earliest visions of sunny sadism from the 1950s (a period where technicolor demands trumped creating desaturated moods). Likewise, Goldman and Burton’s take on what is basically a gothic version of the X-Men mansion is a visual and tonal delight.
At the center of this is Green, whose radiant charisma carries the film effortlessly through all expository hurdles that cripple so many other YA stories. There is also a freshness to her performance, in spite of often being surrounded by Burton’s usual trappings; it’s polite smiles and a cordial pipe that masks a hidden capriciousness, suggesting that she is more Gene Wilder than Julie Andrews when crossed. After all, upon hearing that Jake’s arrival has caused a ruckus in the nearby village, the headmistress pleasantly laments that she does hate killing the local police officers when they come to ask questions. Jake at first thinks she’s joking since she says it with all the concern of a parent realizing she’s left the stove on while halfway out the door—but such things are easily remedied.
One imagines that if the film was designed from the ground up by Burton and Goldman that Green would be the star. Alas then that certain genre functions must be maintained, because this is most definitely Jake’s story. And Butterfield, who was so captivating at a young age in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, is merely serviceable here. The other children may tell Jake again and again that he isn’t normal (the greatest of sins), but one suspects his filmmaker disagrees, leaving us with a rather bland protagonist to shoulder us through an overabundance of plot.
Still, the other children all get moments to shine, whether it is with amusing hidden teeth in the back of their heads, or in remarkable power displays that includes raising an army of long-dead skeletons back to subservient life in what is clearly an homage to Ray Harryhausen. These visceral eccentricities subvert expectations during the climax, avoiding what could have otherwise been a few too many clichés. The designs of the Hollows are also too devilishly fun to spoil here.
Ultimately, Miss Peregrine has a lot of creative energy and production design wonderment, which allows it to not get too bogged down in its density of familiar plotting. For younger audiences, especially, it should offer a fanciful darkness that isn’t overly pitch black. Still, one wishes the whole film could have been spent with the kids at home, for it is there the movie offers the kind of domestic bliss not seen this side of the House of Frankenstein.