For some, admitting that over the course of the past 15 years Tim Burton has become less of a director and more of a stylist. Each successive movie fans of Burton hold out hope that this next one will finally be a return to form for the once acclaimed director only to be forced to confront disappointing narratives with heavily stylized visuals. Because of those past triumphs, we still hold onto the faintest glimmers of hope. Which brings us to Burton’s latest, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ novel of the same name, and the latest hope that Burton of old might once again make an appearance on the silver screen. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is Tim Burton’s best film in years, though I know that’s faint praise. It’s a stylistic marvel in the traditional Burton fashion that is able to overcome some convoluted plotting thanks to astoundingly committed performances of Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson.
The simplest way to describe Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is that it’s a mixture of Burton’s Big Fish and the X-Men. Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) has been regaled throughout his life by his grandfather Abe’s (Terrance Stamp) tall tales of monsters and people with special powers. As a younger child, Jake believed every word of his grandfather’s stories only to become the subject of scorn and ridicule from his teachers and fellow students. The doubts of his peers leads Jake to doubt his grandfather’s mental health, something that is fairly common in Jake’s family. When a horrific event leads to the death of Abe, the grandson is grief stricken over the loss of his paternal grandfather. This leads to a series of discoveries that sends Jake and his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) to Wales at the suggestion of Jake’s therapist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney).
In Wales, after a series of stops and starts, Jake finally discovers Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a mansion nestled away that is occupied by a ragtag family of unique children with peculiar abilities overseen by Miss Peregrine (Green). Though the mansion was destroyed in 1943 during World War II, Miss Peregrine is able to preserve this little corner of life through maintaining a “loop,” where she manipulates time so the denizens of her household can live a peaceful life. Among some of the peculiar children in the household are Emma (Ella Purnell), who has the ability to control air and wear lead boots to keep her close to the ground; Olive (Lauren McCrostie), with the ability to control fire; Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who can give life to inanimate objects, as well as a number of other with their own set of superpowers. However, not all those with peculiar abilities are good, as evidenced by Barron (Jackson), who has conducted horrific experiments in search of immortality only to have created a new breed of ghastly peculiars that rely on the consumption of the eyeballs of peculiars to retain a human form. Barron’s past errors haven’t taught him any lessons as he seeks to capture Miss Peregrine and more in order to ultimately achieve his goal of immortality no matter the cost.
The biggest issue facing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the wildly convoluted plotting and the expansive set of rules that dictate the film’s time travel and inner workings of the peculiars. It always seems like the screenplay by Jane Goldman is slowing down the action so that something can be thoroughly explained. It’s not hard to imagine that this whimsical piece of fantasy might be too convoluted for younger viewers to follow all of the intricate plotting. Most of these issues are somewhat mitigated by the film’s fairly brisk pacing and the excellent casting throughout.
Of that cast, the aforementioned standouts are Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson. Green carries her character with certain level of stern dignity, compassionate yet tough. Conversely, Samuel L. Jackson is just chewing scenery with jagged, sharp teeth. Over the past few years, Jackson seems to reinvigorated as a supporting actor and his role here is another crazed performance that unleashes the venerable actor in so many wildly entertaining directions. Asa Butterfield is sturdy as the audience surrogate, but doesn’t show any new aspects to his talents that we haven’t seen before. With large eyes that seemed pulled out of a Keane painting, young Ella Purnell adds a sense of weary innocence to the cast of misfit mutants with a look that might establish her as Burton’s next young ingénue.
The peculiar powers of the children does provide Tim Burton with ample opportunities to bring some fun little homages into the world of Miss Peregrine’s. In the scene where Enoch displays his powers, he animates some crudely assembled dolls to life. It unfolds in a stop motion sequence that makes it seem as if Enoch is the long lost third Quay Brother. Burton doesn’t hide that obvious influence nor does he hide the obvious influence of Ray Harryhausen in the film’s climactic battle where an army of skeletons are revived in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Jason and the Argonauts. Throughout the movie there are sequences that present some of Burton’s best visual work in ages with scenes that are wondrous and fun, a rarity in recent Burton films. For all the visual splendor and fun in the action scenes, Miss Peregrine’s is lacking in the humor department, with few of the intended jokes really landing; one key exception would be the delirious scene illustrating Samuel L. Jackson and company devouring eyeballs to sustain their existence.
For those that find Tim Burton to be more of stylist than a storyteller there’s nothing that will dissuade that notion in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. It certainly doesn’t rank among the director’s top tier of work, but it’s easily the best he’s done in a very long time. It’s a well-cast movie that ambles around the convoluted corners of its plotting with visual splendor and a bit of charm. A long time ago, Tim Burton movies gave us so much more than visual splendor and a bit of charm, but these days we’ve got to take what we can get.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
- Overall Score
A modest return to form for Tim Burton, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children features an extremely convoluted plot that is mitigated by some thrilling action and the spirited performances of Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson.