Film Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton’s adaptation of the kids’ fantasy novel boasts some spectacular set-pieces but should have been less morose and more entertaining.
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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children may house elements of the X-Men and Harry Potter series, but above all it’s instantly recognizable as a Tim Burton film, with its family of outcasts, baroque production design and grotesque creature effects. This adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ popular kids’ novel is intriguing, highly imaginative and often visually dazzling. The only element missing is sheer fun.

There’s a certain moroseness to the overall mood and story that diminishes the entertainment quotient of this big-budget fantasy. Death or the constant threat of extinction loom surprisingly large over this ostensible family diversion. Of course, those themes are nothing new for Burton, but one longs for the cheeky, light touch he brought to them in films like Beetlejuice and Corpse Bride.

The tale begins in the decidedly non-fantastical setting of Tampa, Florida, where teenage Jake (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield) feels estranged from his parents (Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens) but worships his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) and dotes on his stories of an amazing refuge he found before going off to fight in World War II. Jake is traumatized when he witnesses his grandfather’s murder by a huge, long-limbed creature, and gets his therapist (Allison Janney) to approve a therapeutic trip with his dad to Wales and the village called Cairnholm where his granddad lived.

Jake manages to ditch his father and finds the Victorian mansion where Abe and his fellow orphans resided. What he soon comes to learn is that the building and its grounds exist in a time loop where it’s eternally the same day in 1943 before the place was destroyed by Nazi bombers. It’s presided over by the imposing Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), an actual peregrine who is able to take human form and possesses extraordinary protective powers. And all the orphans living there are very special, too: among them, a little girl with superhuman strength, a boy with a hive of bees inside him, girls who generate fire and can make plants grow, and a boy who brings inanimate objects to life. Most compelling for Jake is the beautiful Emma (Ella Purnell), who must wear lead shoes or she will float away into space.

But danger lurks in the form of a shape-shifting, power-hungry monster named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who feeds off the eyes of his peculiar prey. Jake is key to the fight against Barron and his army of “Hollows,” since only he can see the terrifying giant predators that are invisible to others.

The Hollows and the other creatures that turn up in Miss Peregrine have that eccentrically distinctive Burton look that earned him a Museum of Modern Art show a few years back. Gavin Bouquet’s production design, Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography are all impeccable, and there are some spectacular set-pieces, including Miss Peregrine’s nightly ritual to turn back time and a literally breathtaking underwater sequence in which Emma brings a sunken ocean liner back to life. And the climactic battle, set on the Blackpool pier, in which those peculiar children channel their various powers into a formidable team effort, features a Burton salute to Ray Harryhausen with an army of sword-wielding skeletons.

Butterfield, no longer the wide-eyed child from Hugo, plays his awkward-adolescent part a little too regressively to carry the film; that charisma gap is amply filled by the magnetic Green, who’s both authoritative and otherworldly (and suitably birdlike). Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery once again with infectious glee.

But Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman take all these outlandish doings a bit too seriously. Yes, high stakes are involved, but except for assorted comic moments involving the kids and their bizarre powers, the film forgets that it’s essentially escapist entertainment. A lighter, more airy touch would have been welcome, something the high-flying Emma might have gladly supplied.

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