There’s no denying that Tim Burton has a distinct point of view. He’s always championed the outsider, the weird, the different in his movies. Thus he seems ideally suited to lens an adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The debut novel by author Ransom Riggs recounts the tale of Jacob “Jake” Portman (Asa Butterfield), a seemingly normal boy who wants to learn more about his beloved grandfather after his death. Jake’s search uncovers clues that lead to an orphanage on Cairnholm Island in Wales. Once Jake arrives at Miss Peregrine’s estate, he descends into a world of the unknown. There he finds himself in a bizarre time loop populated by a group of odd youngsters. What makes them so unique is that they have supernatural powers or deformities. Grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) had always filled Jake’s head with these fantasies when he was very young. It now appears that these whimsical bedtime stories were indeed the truth.
Fables about orphans, often ones on the fringes of society, have long been the subject of beloved fiction. The Outsiders, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, even Annie are some of our most enduring tales. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is no different. Ok so our narrator Jake isn’t an orphan. He has a mom (Kim Dickens) and a dad (Chris O’Dowd). However his grandfather didn’t and neither do the kids under the care of Miss Peregrine. This is an adventure about the struggle to find a place to fit in. It speaks to anyone who has ever felt like they don’t quite conform to rigid societal norms. In essence, it’s for everyone. So no, the idea isn’t particularly fascinating or innovative but the manifestation of that idea is. The construct allows Tim Burton to work within his wheelhouse. Say what you will about Burton’s narratives. His work is visually gorgeous. Miss Peregrine is no exception.
Tim Burton has assembled a strong cast. Eva Green is a joy as the headmistress with a smoking pipe who has some peculiar abilities of her own. She’s not the primary lead but she’s mentioned in the title so I’d say the character is a key component. Miss Peregrine is sweet, but there’s an edge to her. She’s sort of a “Scary” Poppins that speaks in soothing tones with just enough curtness to her words to have a little bite. Then there’s the Peculiars, little curiosities, each one with a special ability. We live in the time of superhero movies so they’re not unlike the X-Men to cite a familiar reference. This one floats, another controls fire, he is invisible, she has superhuman strength, this boy has a beehive in his stomach. There are others. The benefit of their ability isn’t as important as its portrayal in cinematic form. The script doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly understand these people in any meaningful way. Yet I had fun in simply discovering and understanding their talents. Samuel L. Jackson plays the film’s main antagonist, the power-hungry Mr. Barron. Apparently, he is the leader of a group of evil monsters who look human. Unfortunately his poorly defined villain is a weakness of an increasingly convoluted saga.
The fable is not perfect by any means. It has a tendency to drag in the 3rd quarter, but I was mostly entertained throughout. Miss Peregrine’s simple beginning starts out promisingly, then grows ever more puzzling. It ultimately lacks a coherent narrative. Yet it never fails as a beautifully realized period piece. Tim Burton is known for his fantastical worlds. Miss Peregrine is the expression of the director’s dreams. The cinematography is nicely handled by 4-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Inside Llewyn Davis). Set in 1943 with Gothic flourishes, Tim Burton makes good use of on-location shooting, first in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, then Belgium, England, and Wales. All of that shows in the strong visual aesthetic. Torenhof Castle in Belgium was used as the setting for Miss Peregrine’s home and it’s stunning. I especially liked the exterior shots with a topiary garden of various animals. The production design utilized the actual rooms inside along with constructed practical sets, as opposed to digital backdrops. These include a parlor, a dining room, a conservatory and a lab where one of the children can resurrect the dead. Speaking of which, there are many delightfully frightening images. Colleen Atwood’s costumes exploit this too. The image of two mute twins in white robes and masks to match, still haunt my mind. The chronicle is long and unfocused, but there are still enough moments to charm. Think of it as an exquisite but messy entanglement.