The very best Tim Burton films feature a charismatic weirdo at the center of the story who is either preternaturally innocent (Edward Scissorhands, Pee-Wee Herman), or charged with the protection of innocence (Batman). Enter Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green) into the canon of Burton heroes of this type. She’s the headmistress of a Home for Peculiar Children, which is a sort of mashup of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” follows the story template of its young adult and comic book predecessors — child misfits find a home with others who are just as different as they are, and learn to use their unique powers as a team in order to protect themselves and their loved ones. The story is not going to break any new ground, but this age-old tale is gripping nonetheless when in the right hands.
In Burton’s hands, the film has a wickedly wry sense of humor, and an enchanting aesthetic of old-fashioned yet thoroughly modern steampunk spookiness. Green, with her flashing eyes and menacingly toothy grin, is the perfect performer to take on this quintessentially Burton role. Miss Peregrine is stylish, dangerous and mysterious, but above all, protective of the children in her care.
We arrive at the home through the curiosity of Jake (Asa Butterfield) a Florida teen who grew up listening to the tales of peculiar children from his grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp). Having long ago abandoned such fantastical ideas, Jake plunges into his grandfather’s past after Abe’s violent and troubling murder at the hands of dark forces.
His questions take him to a Welsh island, with his doltish father (Chris O’Dowd) in tow. Jake’s own peculiarity allows him to find the home, located inside the time loop of an almost-perfect 1943 day. His grandfather’s old friends are there, protected by Miss Peregrine’s time loop from the same evil, power-hungry tyrants that targeted Abe.
It’s clear that Burton and team revel in the world of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” where the young ones have turned their peculiarities into super powers. Emma (Ella Purnell) tames her floating with lead boots, and her control of air allows her to soar through the sky and explore underwater shipwrecks off the coast. Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) breathes life into grotesque inanimate objects, Frankenstein-style, with his bare hands, and Olive (Lauren McCrostie) has an incendiary caress; other children’s peculiarities remain initially hidden. Burdens of difference become strengths in this idyllic, protected setting.
The role of Jake is ideal for Butterfield’s onscreen maturation; he brings a twinge of romance and doses of teen angst and heroism in equal parts. Butterfield makes Jake curious, sensitive and principled, far more than just a cookie-cutter hero.
Jane Goldman adapted the novel by Ransom Riggs for the screen, and the film’s tone buoyantly balances both the light and the dark. But the first half of the film greatly outshines the last act, which descends into villains (led by Samuel L. Jackson) mwa-ha-ha-ing and fantasy creatures clashing. While it’s a fine return to form for Burton, there’s a sense that in a story this formulaic, even the rakishly captivating Miss Peregrine can’t live up to some of the earlier, even more peculiar heroes we once fell in love with
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney, Terence Stamp.
Director: Tim Burton.
Running time: 2:07.
Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril.