Tim Burton directs this adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ bestselling YA novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Published in 2011, Riggs’ whimsically unconventional debut stood out from standard YA fare because of its frequent use of vintage vernacular photographs and one struggles to imagine source material better tonally and thematically suited to Burton’s particular sensibilities. The film centres on Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), a seemingly ordinary American teenager whose only friend appears to be his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp). Jake adores his grandfather, who has entertained him with stories about a secret home for children with extraordinary abilities hidden on a tiny island in Wales since Jake was a little boy. When Abe dies a shockingly gruesome but apparently natural death Jake’s therapist (Allison Janney) encourages the grieving sixteen-year old to visit the Welsh island of Cairnholm to obtain closure.
Jake’s aimless, amateur ornithologist father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) accompanies him on his trip to Wales. While Franklin watches the local birds, drinks beer at the local pub and takes long afternoon naps Jake searches for the children’s home his grandfather described. He is devastated to find it a burned out ruin, apparently the victim of a 1943 German aerial bombing that destroyed the Victorian building and killed all of its occupants. Jake is disillusioned and starting to doubt everything his grandfather ever told him when a beautiful, golden-haired girl suddenly appears. He attempts to flee and concusses himself in the process, awakening to find himself surrounded by a group of concerned youngsters in distinctly retro looking attire.
The golden-haired girl introduces herself as Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell) and explains that Jake has wandered into a time loop where it is permanently September 3rd, 1943. Jake is hurriedly escorted to the miraculously restored home for children to meet its hawkish, pertinaciously punctual headmistress, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Miss Peregrine takes Jake on a guided tour of the house, introducing him to its residents and explaining the nature of peculiarities as “a recessive gene, carried down through families”. Miss Peregrine herself is an Ymbryne, someone who can manipulate time to create temporal loops and transform themselves into a bird. She and her fellow Ymbrynes use their abilities to create a safe place for young people who don’t fit into the outside world because of their extraordinary abilities.
This is the point where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children transforms into something more magical and vivid than it was previously. With most of the necessary expositional groundwork taken care of in the film’s pleasant but unspectacular first act, Burton is now free to luxuriate in the wonderful weirdness of the fictional world Ransom Riggs created. There’s a tangible joy to the extended sequence where each of Miss Peregrine’s charges demonstrate the nature of their particular peculiarity that has been absent from the director’s work over the past few years. Some of the peculiarities are relatively familiar things like pyrokinesis, invisibility and superhuman strength, while others are stranger, like the boy who has a beehive living in his stomach or the sullen teenager who can briefly reanimate the dead, but all are depicted with the kind of wit and creativity characteristic of Tim Burton at his best.
The film’s villains have the same vintage Burton appeal. Known as Hollowgasts, the grotesquely deformed creatures are the result of a disastrous experiment undertaken by a group of adult peculiars hoping to cheat death and become immortal. Invisible to most humans (even the peculiar ones), the Hollowgasts hunt and consume peculiars. Samuel L. Jackson plays their leader, Mr. Barron, a Loki-like trickster who managed to regain his human appearance and cognitive capacities by literally eating the eyes of peculiar children. Jake’s ability to see the Hollowgasts helps him to protect his fellow peculiars and makes him their de facto leader when Mr. Barron destroys the loop and kidnaps Miss Peregrine. They follow Barron to present day Blackpool, where the film’s sensational, visually dynamic, Ray Harryhausen-esque climatic action sequence takes place.
The only drawback to Miss Peregrine’s final act is that Miss Peregrine herself is sidelined for so much of it. It’s understandable, Asa Butterfield’s Jake is our protagonist after all, but Eva Green is so magnetic as the maternal but still somehow menacing headmistress that you can’t help wishing that she was onscreen every moment she’s not. It’s a small complaint though and ultimately Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is charming return to form for Tim Burton and a film that contains a genuinely lovely message about peculiarity being a gift rather than a burden.