When Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield; Hugo and Ender’s Game) was growing up, his grandfather (Terrence Stamp) used to tell him stories of a place he lived as a young man. On a small island off the coast of Wales there was a home full of “peculiar” children- a girl who was lighter than air, a boy with a hive of bees living inside him, and even a boy who was completely invisible. As he grew up, Jake eventually stopped believing in his grandfather’s stories, believing it was his way of dealing with life after being forced to flee the Nazis in World War II. But when Jake finds his grandfather dead, with his eyes removed from their sockets, he begins to wonder if the old stories were actually true. Convincing his father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to the island, he discovers that not only are the children in the stories real but that they and their caretaker –Miss Peregrine (Eva Green)- need his help.
Now, the first thing to note about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is that, unlike much of Burton’s previous work, it is aimed primarily at older children and young adults. Burton’s spooky style has always seemed liable to give young children nightmares, and this film is no exception. In fact, I’m quite surprised the MPAA granted it a PG-13 rating considering the amount of (fairly graphic) violence portrayed in the film. But beyond Burton’s ghoulish style, the film mostly adheres to the standard tropes of young-adult adventure movies.
Now, I know some of you groaned internally when I use that phrase (and not without good reason). However, MPHFPC is separated from the flood of bad to mediocre Hunger Games rip-offs by several important points. First and most importantly, the film has a very strong cast. Asa Butterfield ably plays the young lead, even if he has lost some of the childish charm he displayed in Scorsese’s Hugo. He is complemented by another young cast member, Ella Purnell, who is quite charming even if she didn’t blow me away like when I first saw her in Wildlike. Eva Green is a delight to watch as the motherly caretaker of the peculiar children, especially because she seems to get a lot of villainous roles. And finally, Samuel L. Jackson portrays the film’s antagonist, Mr. Barron. He, entertainingly enough, seems to have decided to play a villain I can only describe as “exasperated and annoyed” rather than a classically “evil” villain.
In addition, the film’s visuals are a treat for the eyes. Burton’s attention to detail, color, lighting, and all the props on set is not surprisingly but always wonderful to see. Burton, in like all his other works, crafts a strange little world that we can visit for a couple of hours. But if the film has a weak point it would have to be the plot. The story draws inspiration from the likes of well-known fantasy works like Harry Potter and also bits which are reminiscent of the superhero genre here and there; in short, the story feels too derivative of other works. Plus, the film’s plot involves a certain amount of time travel, which is neither sufficiently explained nor allowed to be glossed over a la Looper, which left me struggling to make sense of certain plot points. Although whether these problems stem from Burton, Jane Goldman (the screenwriter) or the book the film is based on is unclear.
Overall, while not quite up to the standards of Tim Burton’s masterpieces, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a pleasantly entertaining, charming, and at times very creepy fairytale. I don’t expect it will ever be looked upon in the same light as Edward Scissorhands or Sweeny Todd, but if you like fantasy and/or Burton’s signature macabre stylings you could certainly do a lot worse.