Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Just like the trippy Alice in Wonderland and the sugary Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, writer Ransom Riggs’ outlandish Young Adult novel about glorious weirdos, freakish islands and multiple time loops seems to be a perfect fit for the likes of director Tim Burton, Beetlejuice (1988), what with his fondness for all things twisted and macabre. However, this time around the 58-year-old Burton isn’t being weighed down by preconceived expectations based on motion-picture ghosts of the past, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children breaking the Godfather of Gothic out from the shackles of his recent cinematic runt.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children tells the story of a malcontent 16-year-old named Jacob ‘Jake’ Portman (Asa Butterfield) who (according to Burton) lives in one of the most ungodly places on Earth: suburban Florida. Trapped in the hellish domain of flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, Jake yearns to be as brave and exploratory as his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), a Polish immigrant who fought for the Royal Air Force in World War II. Filling his grandson’s mind with stories of a secretive orphanage for ‘peculiar’ children with magical abilities, who were watched over by a regal yet fearless shape-shifting headmistress, Miss Peregrine, Jake dreams of finding a place where he too can fit in, somewhere far away from the palm tree dotted streets of his home.
When Abe is mysteriously found dead, with orifices in place of his eyes, Jake becomes obsessed with locating the orphanage that his grandfather spoke so auspiciously about, eventually tracking its whereabouts to the lonelier side of a misty isle near Wales. Accompanied by his miserable ornithologist father, Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), the pair travels to the island; Franklin hoping the trip would give his son some sort of closure. Alas, when Jake finds the mansion, he is shocked to see it burnt and withered, ultimately discovering that’s it’s been that way since it was hit during a Nazi raid in 1943, an explosion destroying the building and killing all of the folks inside.
Determined to keep on digging, Jake is whisked back to a vibrant 1943 after he spots two teenage girls — a young woman by the name of Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), who can manipulate air, and a pyrokinetic teen whose hands are so hot they cremate all they touch, Olive Abroholos Elephanta (Lauren McCrostie) — the pair leading him to the titular home, which is stuck in a continually repeating cycle, where he meets the mystifying Miss Peregrine herself (played to perfection by the amazing Eva Green). Sort of like a dark Julie Andrews à la Scary Poppins, it’s Peregrine’s Ymbryne power that’s grafted the loop, this keeping the children hidden and eternally youthful as the day of September the 3rd 1943 keeps on replaying itself — kinda like Groundhog Day (1993) — the caretaker re-setting time just as a German air-raid hits, the bombs rewinding backwards in slow-motion. This however is the least of the junior X-Men’s concern, as they’re being hunted by an eerie species of teethy, tentacle-tongued nasties called Hollowgasts, these Burton-ian slender men in search of eye balls to devour in order to regain their lost humanity.
Look, I didn’t actually know this but the chief novelty of the Riggs’ paperback was its images. Yep, a series of black-and-white photographs that were pasted onto many of its pages, trick vintage snaps that Riggs had collected over the years from flea markets, the writer basing the foundation for his plot on the pictures — some of which have been recreated for the film’s bumper credits (which features Florence + The Machine’s ‘Wish That You Were Here’). And just like Riggs’ New York Times best seller, Burton’s movie adaptation stands out because of it’s visuals, too — the eccentric director stuffing as much bizarre grotesqueries and steampunk strangeness into the movie’s 127 minute run time. With that said, it’s easy to see what attracted Burton to the project; there’s a Ray Harryhausen inspired seaside clash featuring an army of skeletons, a dead child being reanimated like a marionette and a delightful stop-motion fight involving a couple of Frankenstein-y dolls, Burton pushing the boundaries of the flick’s PG-13 rating (M here in Oz) with a mishmash of old-school practical effects and slick CGI.
But do these fantastical tit bits add up to much outside of their own visual quirkiness? Thankfully, the screenplay by Jane Goldman, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), injects flashes of life into several of the films’ more generic YA motifs — you know the deal; outsider finds purpose and acceptance, the exhausted boy meets girl romance and a barrage of lore and world building, yada, yada, yada. Sure, it takes a while to get to the crux of the story but Goldman’s script remains somewhat grounded, balancing relatable emotions with the movie’s more Harry Potter-ish elements, even if it’s ghoulishness that (in the end) winds up on top.
Missing many of Burton’s regular faces, the performances here range from terrific to good. With his split from Helena Bonham Carter clearly affecting his casting choices, it looks as though Mr. Burton may have found himself a new go-to muse in the form of Eva Green, Dark Shadows (2012). Cordial yet capricious, Green steals the show as the pipe smoking, crossbow welding Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine: from the cowlick twirl in her hair to the extravagant Colleen Atwood costumes, it’s Green who carries the narrative through its expository jabber, a hurdle that spoils so many other YA adaptations. Asa Butterfield, Hugo (2011), is probably the weakest link as the coy teen Jake, Butterfield stuck in a perpetual bubble of adolescent angst; his love interest Ella Purnell, Wildlike (2014), however, is solid as Emma Bloom, a teen that takes a liking to our brooding protagonist — reoccurring shots of Jake tugging his gravity-defying gal like a helium balloon are so innately Burton, it often feels as though he wrote the story himself.
With Butterfield pushed to the side, one can’t help but notice a bit of Burton in the eldest male, the jealous necromancer Enoch O’Connor, played by newcomer Finlay MacMillan, his peculiarity allowing him to temporarily give life to inanimate objects — homage to early Burton perhaps? Last but not least we have a scenery chewing, neon eyed Samuel L. Jackson, The Avengers (2012), (probably happy to finally be in a Tim Burton film), portraying the villainous Barron, his white do faring much better than it did in 2008’s Jumper. And oh, I almost forgot, look out for a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo from director Burton in the third act.
While fans of the novel might be (a little) disappointed in several of the film’s alterations, Burton aficionados will find a lot to enjoy in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: be it scenes of a sunken steamship’s grand excavation, gardens that look as though they’ve been pruned by Edward Scissorhands or a bird-morphing Eva Green. Could Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children be the picture to revive the current slump in the YA film market? I don’t know about you, but any flick that features a bunch of beasties dining on a platter of detached eyeballs (as if feasting on spaghetti and meatballs) definitely has my support!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released through 20th Century Fox Australia