Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp
‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is so Tim Burton, it feels like it could have been specifically written for him! Jake (Asa Butterfield) is an outsider, his parents tolerate him, everyone at school ignores him and he feels in some way different. The only person he is truly close to is his grandfather, Abe, (Terence Stamp), a man who believes in the magical and tall tales. Following Abe’s untimely demise, Jake finds himself taking a trip to Wales, accompanied by his wonderfully passively-neglectful father (Chris O’Dowd), trying to track down the children’s home where Abe grew up, to help him piece together the mystery of the man he misses so dearly. Upon arrival at the children’s home Jake is plunged into a world of peculiar children; one of whom is lighter than air, one stronger than 10 men and one who has a whole hive of bees living inside them, all overseen by Scary Poppins, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Oh, and they’re now in 1943, live the same day over and over again, ‘Groundhog Day’ style, and are being chased by monsters. Still with me? If anyone other than Tim Burton directed this, it would have been a nonsense.
The first act of the film sees Burton and cast on top form, with the pastel-coloured Hopper-esque Florida homes reminiscent of those in ‘Edward Scissorhands’, paving way to the dark dreary Welsh island where the children’s home stands. The characters seem profoundly real, and Jake’s need to connect with his grandfather proves to be a powerful drive, providing a good emotional scaffold to the tale. Indeed, during this first act it appeared this was a film that could rival Harry Potter in it’s imagination, scope and sense of whimsy.
However, the film seems to lose it’s way once it disconnects with reality entirely. The early scenes of Jake travelling through the ‘loop’ (the plot device explaining how the children remain shielded from the real world) from the dark and rain of Wales to the seemingly idyllic sunshine bathed children’s home in 1943 work well, as Burton explores the disconnect between fantasy and reality, unpicking Jake’s grieving process.
Rather than becoming the next Harry Potter, the narrative seems to drag the film down into becoming the next generic YA outing. You know, the one where Percy Jackson fights immortal trolls in a maze, and heals the rifts in a divided society, all the time finding out who he is as a person.
A whole raft of faux-mythic words are unleashed upon the audience as ‘ymbrines’ (Miss Peregrine herself is one, capable of creating a time-loop, turning into a bird, and entrusted with the care of the titular peculiar children), and ‘hollowgasts’ (‘peculiars’ who were transformed into terrifying eyeball eating, invisible creatures) take centre-stage, over-shadowing the very charming tale of Jake and his grandfather.
Then Samuel L. Jackson’s Barron (head hollowgast) bursts into the plot, in full comic-book bad guy mode, (providing the Johnny Depp element, perhaps?) and drags the film even further into the realms of the silly.
Those criticisms aside, ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ still feels like a return to form for Burton, as he captures both the gothic and magical elements of the story and the dreary mundane heartbreak of reality with some style. The connect between the Hollowgasts and the horrors Abe’s grandfather endured during his time in Poland during WWII is made subtly, and with care. Visually it is pure Burton, playing with colour-palettes and surreal and uncanny imagery. He even indulges in paying homage to other films, with nods to Ray Harryhausen and Stanley Kubrick (“Heeeerrrre’s Samuel!”) peppered throughout.
The fact the original novel was written around some intriguing photographs speaks volumes. The images here are clear and precise, but the narrative feels somewhat secondary.
Largely enjoyable, if overly long and peppered with over-cooked YA tropes (when an intriguing story about family bonds lay underneath it all), ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ will probably prove to be a popular addition to future Christmas TV schedules, but is ultimately quite forgettable.