MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, the feature film directed by Tim Burton based on a bestselling novel, lands this weekend. It’s an early beginning to the month-long celebration of all things creepy and nightmarish for the Halloween season. It’s also a much anticipated movie with a built-in fanbase from readers of the book version. Riding on the heels of ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, and the the relatively well-reviewed BIG EYES, which gleaned an Oscar nom for its star Amy Adams, this will either bring Tim Burton back into favor, or reinforce the expectation and eye rolls inevitable when his hyper-stylized and loony aesthetic gets too muddled, or forgoes substance for style.
Fortunately, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN shows his version of tasteful restraint, delves into darker territory, and to many longtime fans, will stand solidly against much of his better fare. In creating consistency and a bit deeper emotional truth, Burton presents a film with a sense of doom that lacks the fun of a film like BEETLEJUICE. Think EDWARD SCISSORHANDS without the technicolor. Dramatically present is that unique brand of blended darkness and wonder, characters that live with both chosen innocence and the fatalism that comes of being seen as different, true Burton aficionados will recognize and embrace. In that way, Burton bringing to life the cinematic interpretation of Ranson Riggs’ novel was a perfect choice, and while those who love the first book of Riggs’ series will notice a number of changes, the screenplay by longtime Burton collaborator Jane Goldman keeps the spirit of the story intact.
In Tampa, Florida, Jake (Asa Butterfield) lives with parents (Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens) who don’t understand him at all, but he feels a strong kinship with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), who has regaled him with stories his whole life. Abe especially focused on a time before World War II when he lived in a home with a group of strange children, all under the watchful eye of the impressively imposing Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Nobody believes these stories he has always shared about his fantastical pre-war life. After witnessing Abe’s murder by terrifying, noodle-limbed monsters, Jake talks his father into taking him to the site of all these tales, Abe’s childhood home on an island in Wales.
As it turns out, everything Abe told Jake was true. In addition, the home exists in a frozen piece of time, one day in 1943, just before it was bombed by the Germans. Jake finds his way back to that time and meets not just Miss Peregrine herself, but all the kids Abe told him about, including girls with superhuman strength, teeth in the back of their head, power over plants, and one who spontaneously starts fires, a boy who speaks bees, and most fascinating to Jake, a gorgeous big-eyed waif named Emma (Ella Purnell) who controls air, and wears lead shoes to keep from floating away. As expected, there’s a threat beyond the bombs Miss Peregrine keep at bay: There are monsters who are sometimes in the form of humans, like Barron, played by Samuel L. Jackson, or are sometimes in the form of those noodle-limbed and razor-toothed creatures that killed Jake’s grandfather. These monsters eat eyes like they are cherries, and they are after all the peculiars and their caretakers.
Within this story, there are spectacular set-pieces that even taken alone are worthy of admission. Especially enjoyable to fantasy film geeks will be the one with a clear salute to Harryhausen’s skeletons of the SEVEN VOYAGES OF SINBAD. The plot moves quickly, and the audience is swept up in learning more about the children, the mysteries clearly lurking behind Miss Peregrine’s eyes, the direction the relationship between Jake and Emma takes, and whether all these kids will even survive the story. There are definitely elements reminiscent of HARRY POTTER, the X-MEN, and various other stories about outcasts with special powers, but the world of Miss Peregrine is just unique enough to attract those who appreciate fantasies of all kinds. The dazzling visual look of the film must be credited in part to the artistry of costume designer Colleen Atwood, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and production designer Gavin Bocquet. MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN has so much less freneticism than we’ve recently has come to expect from Burton, it almost feels like he constructed it in his own time-loop in which each 24 hours includes a screening of PAN’S LABYRINTH. As such, it is too dark and scary for all but the most fearless children under 8 years old.
The stand-out performances are Eva Green, who, until her spectacular turn in PENNY DREADFUL, has been woefully underrated as an actress, and Ella Purnell, who fits perfectly into Burtons’ version of the Hitchcock ice blonde: the doe-eyed power-waif. However, she also has a magnetism onscreen befitting the powerful character she plays. She shows a believable vulnerability that never dips into victimhood. As appropriate to 1943, she gamely keeps calm and carries on.
It’s likely a number of critics have grown permanently tired of Burton’s style as an auteur, and reviews of this movie might suffer unfairly as a result. Never mind. To many a discerning film fan, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN will represent a return to fine form for the director. Burton has found a great home for his peculiar talents, and his fans should welcome it, and Miss Peregrine, with open arms.