In the months leading up to its release, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has been described, somewhat deridingly, as an imitation of the X-Men franchise. To an extent, this is correct; both stories are about people with superhuman abilities, and in both cases, they have safe havens away from the scorn of everyday people. They also both elicit sympathy from the audience, tapping into the pain of feeling, looking, behaving, and speaking differently. However, the X-Men franchise is comic book, and therefore not only has a much broader appeal but also greater marketability. Miss Peregrine’s is a dark fantasy adapted from a young adult novel, which is to say that it speaks to a very different audience and isn’t as easy to cash in on.
I read Ransom Riggs’ novel/picture book after I learned that the film adaptation would be helmed by Tim Burton. It didn’t take me long to realize that the right directorial choice had been made; aside from the visual aesthetics – for which Burton, I’m sure, was aided in no small part by Riggs’ collection of creepy vintage photographs, and by the decision to release it in 3D – the character development is very much in line with his narrative sensibilities. If films such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are of any indication, Burton relates not to the everyman, but to the outsider, the socially deviant (if only in perception to other characters), the bizarre, the isolated.
In Miss Peregrine’s, several characters fit these descriptions. There’s the protagonist, Florida teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), now emotionally reeling following the violent death of his grandfather (Terence Stamp), who repeatedly told what Jake always assumed were tall tales about growing up around children with superhuman abilities in an isolated Welsh manor. And then there are the children, who in fact were not figments of the grandfather’s imagination and exist in a time loop, specifically the day before the Germans bombed England in World War II. There’s the girl who has to wear special leaded shoes so she doesn’t float away (Ella Purnell), and the girl who can create fire with her hands (Lauren McCrostie), and the invisible boy (an unseen Cameron King), and the little girl with superhuman strength (Pixie Davies), and the jealous boy who can temporarily bring dead things back to life (Finlay MacMillan).
Jake discovered these children upon travelling, along with his largely clueless ornithologist father (Chris O’Dowd), to an island off the coast of Wales, desperate to get answers to the questions raised by his grandfather’s death. The trip comes on the advice of Jake’s psychologist (Allison Janney), who feels that, by being where his grandfather was raised, he finally might be able to separate fantasy from reality. The children can only be reached by stepping through a cave, which acts as a sort of time portal. On the other side, it’s perpetually a day in September of 1942, and the children live happily in a Victorian house surrounded by green pastures.
Running the household is Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a prim, no-nonsense sort who’s very mindful of time and uses a magical stopwatch to keep the time loop going. She also has the ability to turn into the very bird she’s named after, and when necessary, she’s a wicked shot with her crossbow. She explains to Jake, who has superhuman abilities without even knowing it, that their kind – Peculiars, as the title makes perfectly clear – are under threat from stilt-limbed, tentacled, sightless, and occasionally invisible monstrosities called Hollows. These creatures are under the thumb of white-eyed, sharp-toothed, shape-shifting undead humanoids called Wights, the leader of which, Mr. Barron, is played with delicious skin-crawling creepiness by Samuel L. Jackson.
Although the original novel was classified as young adult fiction, it didn’t shy away from darker material, death and gore included. Burton’s film, for the most part, remains faithful in this regard. Specific scenes border on grand guignol, like when the Wights, in an effort to achieve and maintain immortality, feast on the eyeballs of Peculiar children, which are piled high on a silver platter. Or like when we see the boy with temporary reanimation capabilities practicing his craft; he has a rather large, rather unsettling stash of animal hearts in glass jars, and he puts them in haphazardly constructed dolls and then watches them fight to the death. He even puts a heart into the body of a Peculiar boy who, despite being dead, is immaculately kept in bed in his room.
This is likely to ignite debate over how “family friendly” the film is, to say nothing of the fact that it’s rated PG-13. You know your kids – you be the judge. As for general audiences, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to be regarded as Tim Burton’s best film, given a plot that’s somewhat convoluted and, even for a fantasy, implausible. I don’t even want to waste my time by speculating on how readers of the novel will react to it; literary purists annoy me to no end. For whatever my opinion is worth, the film is a fun, engaging dark fantasy, one that gives us plenty to marvel at visually. Just wait until you see Burton’s homage to his cinematic idol Ray Harryhausen, which of course begins with a boardwalk spookhouse.