“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is exactly the sort of grotesque and bizarre story that is right up Tim Burton’s ally. So it’s beyond appropriate that he signed on to direct the adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ novel; and thanks to a host of intriguing characters and stunning visual effects, it is one of his best movies in years.
The story follows Jake (Asa Butterfield), a teenager who grew up listening to his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) tell stories of the time he lived at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in Wales during World War II—stories that the rest of his family don’t believe. One evening, Jake finds his dying grandfather lying outside his home with his eyes missing; his last words are to find September 3, 1943.
Convinced that his son is mentally unstable and that a visit to Wales and the realization that Miss Peregrine’s Home does not exist will put his mind at to rest, Jakes father travels with him to Cairnholm, Wales, where Jake finds that the home was destroyed during a German air raid in World War II. At least, that’s what he thinks until a group of children emerge, taking Jake through a cave and back in time to 1943. He meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who tells him that all of the home’s inhabitants have special abilities, and that they hide from the outside world in a time loop she has created, where every day is September 3, 1943.
But this is where things start to get complicated. Jake learns that there are monsters out there called Hollows, Peculiars who were changed in a failed experiment in immortality. Hollows are usually invisible, but as it turns out Jake is a Peculiar as well, and his ability is that he can see the Hollows. They stay in their human form by consuming Peculiars’ eyeballs, and a group of Hollows led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) are closing in on Miss Peregrine and her children.
“Miss Peregrine” has a lot going for it, and a lot going against it. Visually, it’s gorgeous, from the character and set design to the delightful action scenes that may or may not involve giant monsters and skeleton armies doing battle at an amusement park (I don’t know if that’s an intentional nod to Ray Harryhausen, but I like to think it is). The children’s abilities are varied and unique. For instance, there’s Emma (Ella Purnell), Jake’s love interest who can manipulate air, and has to wear leaded shoes to keep from floating away. But on the more extreme side, there’s Hugh (Milo Parker), a boy who has bees in his stomach, and Claire (Raffiella Chapman), a little girl who has an extra fearsome set of teeth on the back of her head. Their abilities and interactions with each other are often used for a darkly humorous effect, but Burton never loses focus of Jake, the heart of the story whose perpetual feeling of never fitting in goes away as he becomes closer to the Peculiars and ends up leading their fight against the Hollows (and the exploration of Jake’s psychology toward the beginning of the film offers up some not usually seen commentary on mental health). Butterfield proves he could be the next Burton star with his work here, while Green is as charming as ever as the strict but caring headmistress.
But as interesting as the lead-up to Jake’s discovery of the home is, the payoff is fairly standard YA fiction fair (although the very last scene in the movie is actually wonderful, while setting up the potential for future installments in the series). Of course the story needs a good villain, but the film quickly becomes bogged down with talks of time loops, Hollows, and Peculiars to the point where you may find yourself asking just what the point of it all is. On top of that, the film introduces a lot of seemingly intriguing characters, but doesn’t give them enough screen time for audiences to care much about them. Judi Dench makes an all too brief appearance as the headmistress for another Home for Peculiar Children, while almost none of the Peculiar children themselves are paid much attention. They’re there, but they don’t serve much purpose.
Overall, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is generic Burton, which means that fans of his work will either love it or wish it was as good as his early films—in many cases, probably a bit of both. “Miss Peregrine” is a breath of fresh air in the over-saturated young adult fantasy genre in that it offers us a more gruesome story and set of characters than we’re used to seeing. It may still not be quirky enough to be one of the more memorable entries in Burton’s filmography, but it offers up a smidge of hope that the director still has some tricks up his sleeve.
Runtime: 127 minutes. Rated PG-13.