The cries that director Tim Burton has righted his sagging string of recent efforts (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, Big Eyes) with his adaptation of Ransom Riggs’s novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (screenplay by Jane Goldman) is a bit overstated, but it certainly is a step in the right direction. This is in large part thanks due to a warm and comforting performance from Eva Green as the headmistress of a special school for gifted kids. The biggest issue I have with the movie is that it’s told from the least interesting perspective, that of young Jake (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield), a seemingly normal child with an eccentric grandfather (Terence Stamp) who spins stories of a far away home where he met extraordinary children in his youth.
But when grandpa dies under mysterious circumstances, Jake is somewhat mortified to the point where his parents (played by Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens) send him to a therapist (Allison Janney) to help him realize that the giant creature he saw in the woods that plucked his grandfather’s eyes out wasn’t real (hint: it was real). Thankfully, his grandfather left clues in his home that convince Jake he must head off to a small island community off the coast of Wales in search of Miss Peregrine and the answers about who killed his grandfather. Jake’s parents believe going there might help Jake discover that his fantasies aren’t real and make him snap back to reality, so dad accompanies him to the quaint, picturesque location.
As is the issue with many recent fantasy stories (especially of the young adult variety), Miss Peregrine spends about half of its story explaining what has just happened or is about to happen during the other half. There is endless, confused discussion of time loops—how they are created, how they are broken, how the can be entered into or exited from to step foot into the modern world.
Jake discovers that Miss Peregrine and her charges (this is essentially a school for mutants, in case you hadn’t figured this out) have hidden themselves in a time loop of a single 24-hour period where she believes they can hide from an evil army of creatures known as Hollows, led by Barron (Samuel L. Jackson with pointy teeth). The more eyes that the Hollows consume, the more human like they become. I should note that the scarier, less evolved Hollows look a whole lot like an incarnation of the Slenderman, as if this film didn’t sound freaky enough.
Jake meets the various peculiars at the home, some of whom are simply super strong, while other need special shoes to keep from floating away. One young girl has a mouth in the back of her head; another can control oxygen to the point where she can empty an underwater room of water and fill it with breathable air. This particular resident is Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell, from Kick-Ass 2 and Maleficent), and her presence in the story underscores a particular problem with Miss Peregrine: Jake is a bit of a dud as a character. Everything and everyone around him is far more interesting, and maybe that’s the point—Jake doesn’t fully come into his own and realize his potential as a person until he is placed in this environment. But that doesn’t really help an audience attach itself to a somewhat interesting character to guide them through this tale.
It almost works against Butterfield that there are so many fantastic actors surrounding him, even in smaller roles. If you blink, you might miss some very amusing scenes with the likes of Judi Dench and Rupert Everett, not to mention Jackson chewing up the scenery with his sharpened chompers. And maybe that’s the issue I have with so many fantasy stories: it takes the supporting characters to give any amount of color to our protagonist, which is fine if the lead is surrounded by these other characters most of the time. But it feels like Jake is on his own or with his nay-saying dad most of the time, making us crave his time with the peculiars all the more.
I think the moments I loved the most about the movie were they ones that make me realize how utterly inappropriate it is for younger children, whom I’m hoping will beg their parents to see it. The film is genuinely scary at times, gory in a playful way (plates of eyeballs being gobbled up like shrimp appetizers is a lasting image), and just generally dark in ways that I craved as a preteen. Miss Peregine dances along that line so perfectly that I can imagine it either being a gateway drug for future horror fans, or putting certain youngsters off horror forever.
The film’s climax is ambitious but messy, as most things with jumping timelines, and rules are seemingly being invented and broken as required by the story. The saving grace of the entire work is Green’s magnificent, confident Miss Peregrine, who is the ultimate protector. I should also applaud the work done by production designer Gavin Bocquet, who has created a home that is both regal and mildly creepy. I never got tired of allowing my eyes to explore each room, looking for strange details in every corner and always finding something.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a perfect pre-Halloween adventure, a primer for scarier stuff to come, and I am genuinely pleased that Tim Burton has found a story that allows him to be subversive within a tale meant for children. Aside from wishing he’d found a way to breathe some life into the Jake character, Burton largely succeeds in building a stunning world in which he can ply his trade and freak us out in the process.