For me, a bit of an impasse has been reached with the work of director Tim Burton. While he’s undoubtedly a master in terms of creating his distinct brand of style, moody palate, and offbeat humor in all of his work, his films have tended to land flat in pretty much all departments since the early 2000s. Even Big Eyes, his re-teaming with the brilliant writing team behind Ed Wood, felt empty despite the many things it had going for it. And maybe it’s because of this let-down, and because he’s working a plot-heavy story, that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was such a pleasant surprise.
Based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is packed with the kind of young-outcast story that Burton makes his so often, and it’s filled with enough intriguing dark magic and mythology to keep the viewer engaged even when things don’t land entirely well. In truth, this is perhaps the most enjoyable Burton movie in many years, specifically because he allows the the story to guide him, rather than overshadowing it with his sometimes oppressive stylistic choices. (We get it, dude; you like pale people with frizzy black hair, and old houses with long shadows.)
Asa Butterfield plays Jake, the seemingly average Florida teenager who can’t seem to catch a break in life, and whose parents (Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens) don’t really get him either. His best friend is his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), but he’s grown senile, hanging on to bedtime stories he told Jake as a child that he swears are true. When Abe is killed mysteriously, and Jake thinks he sees monsters commit the act, he spends the next several months talking to a therapist (Allison Janney) trying to forget it. However, when he finds letters in his grandpa’s belongings pointing him to Miss Peregrine’s orphanage, where the old man grew up, on a tiny island in Wales, his shrink decides Jake and his father should go check it out.
Up to this point, the movie is only passingly interesting, but once Jake gets to Wales, the picture really takes off. He’s shown that the orphanage was destroyed during WWII, but he’s also soon met by kids who lived in said orphanage but are still kids. You see, they’re “peculiar” kids, kids with strange gifts or physical attributes, and they are made to live in loops by their caretakers. These loops allow them to live the same day over and over again, though they retain all the memories and can step out of the loop and in to the present if they need. Their caretaker, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), has chosen the 24 hours leading up to the Nazi bombing of the house as their “loop.”
Peregrine can turn in to a bird as well as manipulate time, and some of the other children have powers like hands that can set things on fire, super strength, mouths on the back of their heads, eyes that can project dreams like a movie, the ability to create living puppets, and talk to plants. Jake also meets Emma (Ella Purnell), the girl his grandpa loved, who is lighter than air and needs to wear large leaden boots to remain on the ground. While this is nice and everything, Jake doesn’t think he belongs there; however, he soon learns of a plot to kill all Peculiar children by other Peculiars who mutated themselves in to monsters. They’re led by the evil Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and either look like white-eyed people with sharp teeth, or 8-foot-tall gangling horrors with tentacles on their heads. Nightmare fuel for sure. Jake has to find his inner strength if he is going to save his newfound friends.
There certainly have been a lot of these YA fantasy novels turned into movies in the wake of the Harry Potter films, and while definite comparisons can be made, Miss Peregrine is wholly different in terms of tone and scope. This is a very dark movie, but not one that kids shouldn’t see. It feels right at home in the kind of sinister fairy tales that Disney churned out in the early ’80s. The monsters are scary, the characters are weird, and the jeopardy feels real. Characters die by getting their eyes poked out and eaten. It’s not safe by any means.
And to that end, Burton and his team’s breed of macabre is a perfect marriage. The costumes by Colleen Atwood are particularly wonderful, especially those worn by the 1940s characters. Burton allows the peril to build, and for each of the children to have their moment or two in the spotlight. There’s even an impressive stop-motion sequence where two ambulatory doll monstrosities fight, and a climactic battle between the nasty monsters and reanimated skeletons, evoking Jason and the Argonauts but on an amusement park pier. There’s a lot of backstory, but the story feels very personal, unlike the epicness of something like Potter.
The performances are really 50-50, though. Eva Green is fabulous as Peregrine, a mix of strong, motherly, mysterious, and dangerous. She owns this central role and is a pleasure to watch throughout. (Also, not for nothing, but her name should be thrown in to the list of possible next Doctor Who leads right now.) The other peculiar children are also quite good, and it’s their plights that I found myself clinging to the most. Asa Butterfield, on the other hand, is such a flat and bland lead in this; he’s a plank of wood half the time. Part of me wonders if he was focusing too hard on doing his fairly unconvincing American accent and that’s why he didn’t give much of a performance, but either way, he’s anti-charisma. The other less-great performances have the opposite problem, stemming from Samuel L. Jackson’s excessive scene chewing, which is enjoyable enough for its campiness.
Despite the few duff performances, and some overly earnest dialogue at times, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is thoroughly enjoyable for the bulk of its run time, and Burton proves once again that he can do great things given the proper parameters. I’d gladly watch a few more of these movies. Not perfect, but roundly fun.
Images: 20th Century Fox