D: Tim Burton / 127m
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Finlay McMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Kim Dickens
Teenager Jake Portman (Butterfield) is very close to his grandfather, Abe (Stamp), who tells him stories of when he was a boy and lived on an island off the coast of Wales during the Second World War. Abe lived at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a place where children with paranormal abilities could live freely and without fear of persecution. In time, Abe had to leave, but he’s never forgotten his time there, and he’s told Jake many stories during the course of Jake’s growing up, but Jake has always believed them to be Abe’s version of fairy stories. But one day, Jake finds his grandfather’s body in the woods near Abe’s home; he’s been attacked and his eyes removed. With his last breath, Abe exhorts Jake to find “the bird, the loop and September 3, 1943”.
The discovery of a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe, added to advice given by Jake’s therapist (Janney), sees Jake and his dad, Franklin (O’Dowd), heading for Wales. They stay at the local inn, and soon, Jake is searching for the “peculiar” home. He finds it in ruins, the result of a direct hit by a German bomb on September 3, 1943. But while he marvels at confrmation of the home’s existence, several of the children Abe has told him about, make themselves known and draw Jake into their world. They travel through a “loop”, a part of time that has been folded in on itself and now re-plays the same day over and over: September 3, 1943. And Jake meets Miss Peregrine (Green) herself, the children’s guardian, called an Ymbryne, a bird able to take human form (and vice versa) and manipulate time.
Miss Peregrine wastes no time in welcoming Jake into the home, and he spends the evening there until he realises his father will be looking for him. He returns as quickly as he can, but not before Miss Peregrine shows him just how dangerous it is outside of her protection. Jake sees a hideous creature called a “Hollowgast” come for the children before Miss Peregrine dispatches it with a crossbow. From there stems a warning relating to Wights, former Peculiars who have been the unfortunate victims of an experiment to harness an Ymbryne’s power. One Wight in particular, Mr Barron (Jackson), has made it his mission to track down all the Ymbrynes and take their eyes. But while the way through the loop remains hidden, the children are safe… until Jake unwittingly leads Mr Barron right to them…
When author Ransom Riggs’ novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was first published in 2011, it was an unexpected success. Riggs’ tale of peculiar children with strange abilities and the evil creatures that hunt them was the first in a trilogy of novels that breathed new life into gothic fantasy. It was obvious that a movie version would be made, and who better to bring the novel to life than Tim Burton? His brand of weird humour and his visual stylings were perfect for Miss Peregrine…, and with a script courtesy of Jane Goldman (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Kingsman: The Secret Service), all the signs were good that the movie would be as dark and strange and captivating and exciting as the novel.
And for the most part it is. Ultimately, it’s the adaptation that doesn’t work entirely, with Goldman unable to pin down the main storyline, and fumbling with the subtext relating to humans as monsters during World War II (it’s no coincidence that Abe is a Polish Jew and a survivor of the ghetto, and that the hollowgasts’ name sounds like something else from World War II). With the main ingredients of Riggs’ tale broadened at first and then allowed to carry on broadening, the movie ends up being only half as rewarding as it could have been. Things begin well with Stamp’s genial yet firm Abe trying to keep Jake safe from the threat of the Wights and the Hollowgasts, but once Abe dies there’s an uneasy switch from Abe and Jake to Jake and Franklin, and their trip to Wales. Goldman rushes things along and soon Jake is getting to know the likes of Emma Bloom (Purnell), who is lighter than air and has to be weighted down; Millard Nullings (King), an invisible boy; and Olive Abroholos Elephanta (McCrostie) who can set things alight just by touching them.
It’s this stretch of the movie that is the most enjoyable, as Jake (and the viewer) gets to know everyone, and the idyllic, if repetitive, nature of the children’s existence is explored. There are terrific performances from all the child actors playing the Peculiar Children of the title, and a wonderful performance from Green as their guardian. With her probing stare and knowing smiles, Green is the movie’s ace in the hole, and the movie misses her energy whenever she’s off screen. Once things start to unravel and Mr. Barron gains the upper hand, the movie pauses to regroup itself, and heads for a crowd-pleasing finale at the end of Blackpool Pier that involves a riotous showdown between Hollowgasts and animated skeletons á la Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Along the way it abandons any notion of cohesion and continuity, and its attempts to make sense of the time loop/time travel conundrum the Peculiars and Jake find themselves in are brief and inconclusive (and baffling to anyone not paying full attention).
But while the script tries to work out how best to tell the story, and in doing so deviates from Riggs’ original halfway cliffhanger-ish ending, the movie is rescued by Burton and his striking visual compositions and the movie’s darkly exuberant set design and decoration. This is, at times, a sumptuous movie to watch, and Burton’s trademark gothic flair is well in evidence as he guides the viewer through a series of imaginative and impressive sequences that more than adequately show how good a fit for the material he is. But again, when the story has to take centre stage it’s often weak and lacking focus, though to be fair to Goldman she is trying to cram an awful lot into a two hour movie, and as good as she is as a screenwriter, when the source material is as detailed as it is, it’s unsurprising that some of the good stuff is going to be overlooked or a way for it all to fit in isn’t explored with any vigour.
Alongside Burton’s efforts, those of Green, Jackson, Stamp and Purnell are most welcome, with Jackson’s pantomime performance proving weirdly appropriate. Fans of the novel will be surprised to find that this is, unless a sequel is green-lit, a stand-alone movie with only a couple of nods to the book’s original ending. Does this work? The answer is impenetrable, either way. Fans and supporters of the novels will be disappointed that this isn’t the beginning of a series, and newcomers will most likely have wanted to spend more time getting to know all the peculiar’s; all in all, there’s something for everyone, just not as much for avid fans of the book.
Rating: 7/10 – with its script proving too wayward, and feeling like it was rushed (or hastily rewritten at some point prior to filming), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children entertains in fits and starts; and yet it’s hugely enjoyable when Goldman and Burton’s sensibilities meet in the middle, and there’s more than enough on display to justify the movie’s being seen by as many people as possible, so perhaps this is one adaptation where advance knowledge of the plot isn’t necessary… or desirable.