As a kid, Jake (Asa Butterfield) was told stories by his grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp) about a fantastical children’s home run by Miss Alma LeFay Perigrine (Eva Green), though Jake stopped believing the stories as he got older. One evening, Abraham is attacked by a strange creature and before dying instructs Jake to travel to the island in Wales where Miss Perigrine’s home resides. It turns out that Miss Perigrine and her “peculiar” children, including lighter than air Emma (Ella Purnell), are hidden in a time loop in 1943, with Miss Perigrine using her abilities to manipulate time to reset the day before a bomb destroys the home. However, the children’s existence is threatened by rogue peculiars known as Wights, led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as the invisible and monstrous Hollowgasts.
It has been more than three decades since 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure introduced the world to the fantastical imagination of director Tim Burton. However, some would argue that Burton’s output has grown stale in recent years, with the critically lambasted Dark Shadows in 2012 marking a low point in his career, though some of the more cynical would probably say that Burton hasn’t made a decent film since 1994’s Ed Wood. After scaling back with the relatively non-fantastical biopic Big Eyes in 2014, Tim Burton returns to the genre he is most known for with this adaptation of the 2011 young adult novel by Ransom Riggs.
The story of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children can almost be described as “Harry Potter meets X-Men.” A regressive gene causes some people to become “peculiar,” which comes in the form of various abilities, such as floating in air, super strength, or even turning objects into living puppets. The peculiars live hidden from society in time loops, where they live out the same day, every day. The peculiars remain in hiding from the Wights, who want to use Miss Peregrine and other time-controlling “ymbryne” peculiars to find the secret to immortality. Another threat is the invisible monstrous peculiars known as Hollowgasts, who need to eat the eyes of peculiar children to return to human form.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is arguably one of Tim Burton’s better film efforts in recent years, even though the film is still nowhere close to his best work. The film also has the challenge of being yet another young adult adaptation, complete with all the clichés of that genre, particularly the romantic subplot between Jake and the air-controlling peculiar Emma. The bright and colourful world of Miss Perigrine’s home is contrasted with the glum outside world, where Jake has to put up with the short patience of his father Franklyn (Chris O’Dowd) and regular sessions with his psychiatrist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney).
Arguably one of the highlights of Dark Shadows, Eva Green reunites with Tim Burton as the titular Miss Peregrine, who is known for her ability to predict events to the second, as well as being able to shapeshift into a peregrine falcon. As the antagonist Mr. Barron, Samuel L. Jackson goes way over-the-top, which simultaneously makes him both the best and worst element of the film. At least the casting of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a refreshing change from Tim Burton’s longtime habit of casting Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the latter of whom will probably never again be seen in a Burton film, following their 2014 break-up.
If there is one area where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children really shines, it is the film’s production design, which includes some of Burton’s most macabre horror-influenced visuals on screen, whether it be the Slenderman-like Hollowgasts or the Wights enjoying a platter full of eyeballs. There is also an incredibly fun to watch skeleton battle in the film, which is obviously influenced by Ray Harryhausen’s work in Jason and the Argonauts. Tim Burton’s longtime composer Danny Elfman is sadly missing from the soundtrack, though composers Michael Higham and Matthew Margeson do a pretty good job at mimicking Elfman’s sound.
After three decades, all but the most devout Tim Burton fans have stopped giving the filmmaker a free pass with his films and there are sure to be those who will consider Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children to be another example of his downfall. However, for those willing to give the film a watch with an open mind, it’s not all that bad.