At about the midpoint of Tim Burton’s latest fantasy adaptation I had a decent chunk of the review composed in my head. I knew the direction and tone this piece would take and had my bullet points, both positive and negative, prepared and ready to go. Then I happened to turn my head and look at my six year old daughter’s face as she sat transfixed by everything happening on screen. For all of Burton’s flaws and missteps he’s made over the past decade plus, when given the chance to both thrill and terrify children, he’ll deliver the goods. Watching Ada gasp, laugh and then shiver during a few moments disturbing enough for any age bracket, I recomposed my thoughts…
Adapted from Ransom Riggs young adult novel of the same name, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children serves up a mish mash of the standard hero’s quest along with elements of Peter Pan, Beetlejuice, and The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. Teenaged Jake lives a humdrum live in Florida, where the only person who takes notice of him is his grandfather (Terrence Stamp). When the grandfather is found dead under mysterious circumstances Jake travels with his dad to Wales in order to explore the children’s home he heard wild stories about as a child.
Instead of the magnificent structure of his grandfather’s stories, Jake finds the ruins of a home that has sat abandoned since it was leveled during a German bombing raid in World War II. Before Jake can make his way back to his dad, he’s greeted by Emma (Ella Purnell), a girl who can float due to her weighing less than air, along with an invisible boy, curly hairded and doll faced strong women and a pair of twins covered head to toe in fitted burlap sacks. They whisk Jake through a “loop”-a day in time they reset and live over and over, which allows them to stay hidden from the world and never age. The home is run by Miss Peregrine, a delightfully vampish Eva Green, who not only watches after the children but also rewinds time at the end of each day, setting things back from moments before the bombs fell onto the home.
As Jake learns about each child’s peculiarity: one girl sparks fire with her touch, one boy can control inanimate object and make them do his bidding, another boy can project his prophetic dreams like a movie, etc etc, he also learns about his own power. Jake is the only one who can see the monsters, called hollowgasts that hunt down the peculiar children in order to kill them and eat their eyeballs. The leader of these creatures is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) a former peculiar turned hollowgast turned white eyed malevolent human. It’s all a bit confusing but Jackson is having a hell of time with the role while also struggling not to drop a “motherfucker” in a PG-13 movie.
Plot is incidental here as Burton follows and hits each of the standard story beats a film like this calls for. What Miss Peregrine lacks in narrative richness it more than makes up for with lush visuals, twisted humor and a wonderful introduction to fantasy and even horror for the younger crowd. It seems like Burton has adapted every property under the sun these past two decades, eschewing original stories for comic books, folklore, rebooted science fiction and musical comedies and even trading cards. While Peregrine falls under that category, Burton allows himself to get a bit more playful this time around. This mischievous tone announces itself right off the bat when a grim and foreboding credit sequence, awash is inky blacks and sepia tones smash cuts to the bright, sunny skies of Florida.
There’s more though. Burton seems to take a particular delight in dreaming up disturbing and beautiful ways to give children nightmares for weeks. The hollowgasts are both fantastic and horrifying with alabaster skin, ten foot long sharpened appendages and rows of teeth and tendrils. Children are plucked up and eaten and one scene contains a hailstorm of plucked eyeballs raining down on the hardwood floor only to be eaten moments later by a smiling Barron and his cohorts. This type of entertainment isn’t something seen all that often in children’s tales anymore despite so many of them drawing inspiration from the dark folklore from the Grimm Brothers. Burton seems to have a handle on how much a child can handle-at one point my wife tried to cover our little girl’s eyes only to have her hand swatted away.
Burton hits on his familiar themes of the outcasts of the world banding together and standing apart from everyone else. Given the situation the kids find themselves in though, hammering on this idea feels a bit out of place. The Peculiars are living during the middle of The Great War and as the bombing of their home and village prove, they are right in the middle of the fight. While these kids have extraordinary powers that could be a tremendous value in the fight, they stand apart from humanity, never lending a hand. Instead they choose to live out the same day, over and over again for all eternity. Further compounding the, well, peculiarity of this choice is Jake’s grandfather’s background. He escaped the Nazis and war torn Poland while its heavily implied that his parents perished in the death camps. Perhaps that’s why he’s the only character among the children to leave the home, as he enlists in the army to fight the Axis powers. Burton also pulls out his familiar trick of forcing his character to make a difficult choice only to wipe out any consequence of having to live with that decision.
Weak thematics aside, the beauty of the film, is the way it blends fantasy and horror together for the younger set. Fans pining for the go-for-broke Burton of the Beetlejuice days are going to be in for a let down. That filmmaker, the one who embraced the chaos of Tex Avery cartoons and did his damnedest to bring them to life on the big screen is gone. The best we can hope for is a guy who can bring his touch of weirdness to these big properties. It’s not ideal, but when it works, as is the case here, it can still be a blast to watch.