Tim Burton movies don’t get much more Burtonesque than “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” an adaptation of the YA bestseller by Ransom Riggs that’s fantastical in the conspicuously weird way the director has made very much his own. It’s unlikely, after all, that one would find a scene of some grotesque characters feasting on a platter heaped high with human eyeballs in a family film made by anybody else, or a long battle between monsters that look like gigantic, faceless versions of Jack Skellington fighting against a horde of reanimated skeletons that pay homage to the ones Ray Harryhausen brought to life in Dynamation. (Those featureless faces do, moreover, occasionally open to shoot forth murderous tentacles.) Be forewarned: very young kids might have a hard time sleeping after watching the movie.
Older children and teens—along with adults in tune with Burton’s quirky vision—should, however, find the picture ghoulishly enjoyable, even though its basic premise about a boy with special powers he must learn to use in order to save the world from destruction—or at least that part of it reserved for unusual people like him—has a familiar ring. Is Harry Potter in the house?
He’s not, of course, but he has a perfectly fine surrogate in Jacob Portman (gawkily endearing Asa Butterfield), the son of parents—played by Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens—who seem only marginally in synch with him. He’s always been much closer to his parental granddad Abe (Terence Stamp), who regaled him while he was growing up with tales about the special children he lived with, after his escape from Poland, in a home presided over by Miss Peregrine on an island off the Welsh coast, and about the monsters he later fought while serving in the British army during the war. When Abe is gruesomely killed, his eyes plucked out of his head, Jake is understandably distraught, and his curiously accommodating therapist (a cheekily subdued Allison Janney) seconds the idea that to secure emotional closure he should visit Miss Peregrine’s place in Wales, accompanied by his father, who plans to use the trip to do some birdwatching for a book he plans to write.
Reaching Cairnholm, however, they find the place in ruins, having been the target of a Luftwaffe bomb back in 1943 that supposedly killed all its residents. But Jake finds out the truth when he passes through a time portal that takes him back to the very day when the bomb struck. The redoubtable Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), an angular, pipe-smoking beauty, is an ymbrine, a human who can transform into a bird (in her case, of course, a peregrine falcon). The ymbrines have become the protectors of “peculiar” children with special abilities. They can also create loops in time, and Peregrine created one just as the bomb was about to strike, taking her and her charges back to the start of the day. For nearly seventy-five years they have all relived that single twenty-four hour period over and over again, always being swung back to its beginning just before destruction struck.
Jake is delighted to meet the “peculiars” that Abe had told him so much about—Olive (Lauren McCrostie), who possesses pyrokinetic powers; Millard (Cameron King), an invisible lad; Bronwyn (Pixie Davies), a sweet looking girl with super strength; Fiona (Georgia Pemberton), who can make plants grow to unbelievable size; Hugh (Milo Parker), a boy with a beehive in his stomach; Claire (Raffiella Chapman), a lovely girl with a second mouth, filled with sharp teeth, in the back of her head; masked twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell); Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), a boy whose dreams foretell the future; and Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who can bring dead things briefly back to life, often in puppet form. But Jake is especially taken by Emma (Ella Purnell), a literally lighter-than-air teen who must wear lead shoes to keep her from floating away. Abe had loved her when he was a boy there, and Jake finds her a soul mate as well.
Jake also learns that he shares his grandfather’s peculiarity—the ability to see the otherwise invisible monsters called hollows that a villainous society of the undead, The Wights, use in their war against the peculiars and their protectors. That power will come in handy when Miss Peregrine’s comes under attack by the leader of The Wights, a shape-shifting fanatic named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to be emulating Cesar Romero’s turn as Batman’s Joker), who believes that he can gain immortality by somehow channeling the abilities of the ymbrines, including Peregrine and her colleague Miss Avocet (Judi Dench). A final showdown between Jake and the other peculiars, on the one hand, and Barron and his cohorts will involve raising a sunken ship from its watery grave off the island and confronting the evildoers—including the enormous hollows—at the English seaside amusement park where Barron intends to complete his dark mission.
Quite frankly the plot of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is—as with so many of the YA books written in the shadow of J.K. Rawling—awfully silly, and Jane Goldman’s adaptation can’t cope with all the time-shifting elements (the concluding segment, which literally brings people back from the dead and then quickly sets up the foundation for a sequel, is pretty much incoherent). Nor does the final battle, for all its visual flourishes, really satisfy: it goes on too long, and winds up feeling more dutiful than consistently inspired.
And yet generally speaking, you’re willing to put up with all the goofiness because Burton, as usual, brings such a dazzling visual sensibility to the film. Even the most prosaic portions of the picture are stunning to look at—kudos to Gavin Bocquet’s fabulous production design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes, as well as the deliciously inventive effects—and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes sure that every frame is lovingly composed. (The 3D format is used in an exceptionally subtle way.) Burton’s treatment of the actors is less secure: O’Dowd, for example, has a thankless role and seems bored by it, and Dench is certainly underused. On the other hand, Butterfield makes a pleasant if slightly undernourished young hero, and Green is marvelously arch as Peregrine; the peculiar children are fine as well, with the ethereal Purnell the standout. And one must acknowledge Burton’s use of the iconic figure of Stamp, who does for this film what Vincent Price did for “Edward Scissorhands.”
This is a movie that’s as peculiar as Peregrine and her charges, but it’s a Tim Burton film, and the peculiarity, if it falls short of enchanting, will be agreeable, especially to the director’s fans.