These days, it’s difficult to predict what sort of Tim Burton movie you’re going to get when you head to the theaters for his latest film.
On one hand, there’s the possibility of getting something like Edward Scissorhands or Sweeney Todd – beautifully shot, wonderfully quirky movies that ooze with atmosphere and blend Burton’s visual magic with a story filled with heart. More recently, however, there’s a distinct chance of getting an Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows – movies that seem to hurl everything their creator can conceive at the screen in one frantic, chaotic torrent of color and chaos intent on distracting its audience from the lack of substance and story underneath the zany spectacle.
Fortunately, Burton’s big-screen adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has far more in common with the former sort of films than the latter.
Directed by Burton from a script by Stardust and X-Men: First Class co-writer Jane Goldman, Miss Peregrine is based on Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young-adult novel of the same name. The film follows a teenage boy whose quest to unravel the mystery of his grandfather’s death leads him to a remote island in Wales. He’s soon introduced to the young residents of a hidden estate where everyone has extraordinary abilities – including the eccentric headmistress, Miss Peregrine. Their lives are soon put in terrible danger, however, when a group of terrifying creatures discover Miss Peregrine’s hidden sanctuary.
The film is led by Penny Dreadful and 300: Rise of an Empire actress Eva Green as the titular Miss Peregrine and Ender’s Game star Asa Butterfield as Jacob, the American teenager caught up with the strange happenings at the school and its even stranger inhabitants. The film also casts Samuel L. Jackson as a wild-haired, shape-changing creature with an appetite for eyeballs, while Ella Purnell (Never Let Me Go, Maleficent) plays a “peculiar” girl with eyes for Jacob and a unique relationship with the air around (and inside) her.
The film’s supporting cast is filled out by The IT Crowd actor Chris O’Dowd as Jacob’s bumbling father, Terence Stamp (Superman II) as Jacob’s grandfather, Dame Judi Dench (Skyfall) as Miss Avocet, and a long list of young actors portraying the fascinating residents of Miss Peregrine’s estate.
With its steampunk set pieces, colorful cast of characters, and vivid depiction of the characters’ fantastic abilities, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels tailor-made for Burton’s unique filmmaking sensibilities. However, it’s Goldman’s script that manages to keep the story grounded enough for you to empathize with the characters – which is no small feat for a film featuring a girl who needs to wear lead shoes to stop her from floating away.
Over the last few years, Green has proven herself to be a scene-stealer every time she appears on camera, and that continues to be the case in Miss Peregrine, in which she makes her role feel far more prominent than her actual screen time suggests. Her presence is sorely missed in any scene she doesn’t appear in, but fortunately, the film’s cast of young actors proves capable of carrying the movie’s momentum along in her absence.
It often feels like the film is Burton’s version of an X-Men movie.
Butterfield is good – if not great – as the movie’s everyman character caught up in the world of nightmarish monsters and people with remarkable abilities, but true to the film’s title, it’s the “peculiar” kids themselves that really shine.
The film’s creative team does an admirable job of giving each and every one of Miss Peregrine’s wards some individual attention, and while they’re not given much of a back story, they’re presented as more than just a simple set of fantastic abilities. That’s not an easy task with a cast as large as this one, and Burton walks that line between spreading the camera’s attention around too much and not doing enough with the characters to forge a connection with the audience.
Visually, Miss Peregrine is a treat for the eyes that manages to convey the sense of wonder Butterfield’s character feels each time he sees the amazing abilities of the children – and Miss Peregrine herself – when they play out in front of him. The same can be said for the sense of dread evoked by the nightmarish villains pursuing Jacob and the children, thanks to some excellent digital creature effects.
Those visual effects get pushed to their limits during one particularly entertaining scene pitting two large groups of CG creatures against each other in an extended brawl. Although the digital creatures occasionally start to look (and act) a little too b-movie/hokey at points, the sequence is packed with enough fun to make you forgive its technical shortcomings.
From its young cast of eccentric characters whose abilities make them outcasts to the narrative that has them using their abilities to protect their friends and mount a daring rescue, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels all too familiar in some ways – in fact, it often feels like the film is Burton’s version of an X-Men movie.
With Green’s character positioned as the group’s enigmatic, brilliant, and protective mentor and Butterfield playing the role of an outsider destined to fill an important role, Miss Peregrine checks off all the typical superhero cinema boxes. And yet, despite all of those similarities with popular superhero fare, the film is distinctly a Tim Burton movie in all the best ways.
While Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children falls a little short of heralding a return to form for Batman– or Beetlejuice-era Burton, it offers a great reminder of how much talent the Oscar-nominated filmmaker has at his disposal, and why it can be so fascinating to see a story – any story, really – through his eyes.