Director Tim Burton takes on author Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in a way no other director can. With his unique gothic cinematic style, and his taste for obscure subject manner, Burton was born to direct this film. What could have been a fad attempt at combining the likes of Bryan Singer’s X-men films with that of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, instead manages to hold its own ground. It’s the Big Fish Burton fans have been longing for, without the mediocre remakes audiences have come to expect from the director. The blend of quirky source material (by Riggs) and a new screenwriter partnership (Jane Goldman of Kick-Ass fame), can be the lightening in a bottle needed to catch the originality fans love. Akin to the Burton-Wallace-August triple threat of Big Fish, Miss Peregrine is a far cry from the loathed Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Dark Shadows. It’s a step up from 2014’s Big Eyes, and certainly a step in the right direction for Burton.
The film follows Jacob Portman (Asa Butterfield of Ender’s Game and Hugo fame) as he discovers clues to the mystery of his grandfather’s death. As Jacob travels through worlds and time, he discovers Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children helmed by the head mistress Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green of Penny Dreadful and Dark Shadows fame). But as Jacob learns more about the children’s powers and his own past, danger deepens with a visit from villainous Wight leader Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his killer goons. Playing the titular role, Eva Green is near perfect as the pipe-smoking, punctual, strict-yet-tender character of Miss Peregrine. Being the best part of Dark Shadows, Green cements herself into the Burton universe up there with Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeny Todd and Alice in Wonderland).
Chock full of small and supporting roles, Miss Peregrine gives the film substance with its star power, but leaves the audience a bit unsatisfied. Terrance Stamp (Abraham Portman) does a fine job as the imaginative-yet-misunderstood grandfather, as does Judi Dench (Miss Avocet) who plays an Ymbryne that transforms into various creatures and manages time loops. Yet the most unsavory is Samuel L. Jackson as the mad-scientist (Mr. Barron) who experiments and eats the eyeballs of Peculiars in order to preserve his immortality. Reminiscent of his character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Jackson plays a shark-like Barron in the vein of Elijah Price with a bit more bite. Not to mention wild hair that would make Ordell Robbie from Quentin Taratino’s Jackie Brown completely jealous. Unfortunately for the film, there just isn’t enough of Barron.
What the film loses in star power, makes up tenfold in young talent. Particularly from Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell (of Maleficent and Kick-Ass 2 fame) as Emma Bloom. Butterfield’s glaring stare and soft demeanor is an exquisite match for Jacob’s heroism. Purnell’s wide-eyed, Goldilocks presence, screams Alison in Wonderland, while having the allure of a horror film’s damsel in distress. Bailey Spry (Annie) from It Follows comes to mind. The chemistry between both actors is innocent and electrifying all at once. Alone they stand on their own, but together they are divinely charismatic. The underwater scene in a shipwrecked cruise liner is one to point out. Not only are the visuals stunning, Mike Higham’s whimsical score evoking that of Danny Elfman, but the two chew through the scene like a pair of ballet professionals.
Unlike many films that start and end strong, Miss Peregrine’s middle is pulled inside out, easily making it the quintessence of the audience’s experience. Not only does it have some of the most visually striking scenes of any film this year, but is filled with the most Burtonesque moments of the director’s filmography in over a decade. From animal garden sculptures remindful of Edward Scissorhands, to fighting skeletons that look like the Martians in Mars Attacks, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will definitely conjure up nostalgia with a refreshing energized desire for more.
The one unfathomable flaw of Burton’s direction, is the explanation of time travel. Unlike films that keep the science and knowhow to a bare minimum, like that of Rian Johnson’s Looper, the ending becomes quickly dragged out by the unnecessary compulsion to tighten up loose ends. Comparable to a solid Hitchcockian thriller, suspense is best left to the viewer. So is science and technology. If left to the imagination of the audience, the film would be seen as one of Burton’s more recent greats. Instead, a feeling of confusing and congestion lingers. A feeling that may not resonate with Burton’s diminishing fandom.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children may not hold up to his classics, but for Burton, surpasses his output from recent years. In a universe where characters need to find and embrace their peculiarities, the director triumphantly redefines his own peculiar brand of filmmaking. This is Burton’s renaissance. Fans can eagerly await Beetlejuice 2 and Dumbo with greater anticipation. Now if only Burton can fix that darn time loop issue.