Ransom Riggs' novel, about a group of special children with extraordinary powers, may as well have been written for Tim Burton to direct.
The title may read “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” but there can be no doubt for anyone buying a ticket: This is really Tim Burton’s Home for Peculiar Children. Not since “Sweeney Todd,” and before that all the way back to “Sleepy Hollow,” have the studios found such a perfect match of material for Hollywood’s most iconic auteur. It’s gotten to the point where the mere addition of Burton’s name to a movie title can justify an otherwise iffy prospect: You don’t want to see a “Planet of the Apes” remake? Well, how about a Tim Burton “Planet of the Apes” remake? Now you’re interested! Here, there’s nothing forced about the coupling of Ransom Riggs’ surprise best-seller with Burton’s playfully nonthreatening goth aesthetic and outsider sensibility, which should put the director back on the blockbuster charts.
One of the kid-lit sphere’s freshest recent surprises, Riggs’ novel was inspired by the author’s personal collection of vintage photographs — including a floating girl, an invisible boy, and other such darkroom dodges (not unlike retouch artist Mark Mothersbaugh’s “Beautiful Mutants” series) — and may as well have been written for Burton to direct. Known as “peculiars,” this eccentric mix of wartime refugees are like a cross between the Addams Family and the X-Men, each one blessed with some outré ability, from spontaneously igniting anything they touch to bringing inanimate objects (i.e. skeletons and dolls) to life.
While collateral damage from a Nazi bombing destroyed their beautiful Victorian orphanage during World War II, these kids have had few direct enemies, tucked away on the tiny Welsh island of Cairnholm, for more than seven decades. But that’s changed, now that a shape-shifting goon named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the hunt for peculiars, gobbling their eyes with great relish (and no one plays great relish, eye-gobbling or otherwise, like Jackson).
The kids have been safe all this time thanks to Miss Peregrine (embodied by Burton’s new muse, Eva Green), who possesses the gift of creating protective “loops,” or 24-hour safety bubbles wherein her charges can hide in a “Groundhog Day”-like cycle, forever repeating the day before the bomb struck. As guardians go, Miss Peregrine is what one might call an “ymbrine,” a rare breed of peculiar capable of transforming into a bird — in her case, a peregrine falcon, though there are others (including Miss Avocet, played by Judi Dench). Her ebony hair streaked with blue and swept up into a bird’s-nest ’do, Green cleverly suggests her avian alter ego, standing rigidly upright in her peacock-blue satin gown, glowering down through exaggerated eyeliner, and brandishing her long, slender fingers as if they were talons. Riggs may have imagined her, but she has clearly become a Burton creation, just one of many among her brood of adolescent oddities, who might otherwise be mistaken for so many sideshow freaks.
While hardly as elaborate (or inventive) as Hogwarts, Miss Peregrine’s eccentric quasi–orphanage shares the quality of remaining a well-kept secret from polite society. Even the other Cairnholm residents don’t realize who their neighbors are, so none can imagine why a boy named Jacob Portman (Asa Butterfield, who has literally grown up — if not necessarily into those endearingly big ears of his — since starring in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”) would travel all the way from Florida to visit what remains of the old house. An aspiring “discoverer,” Jacob is reeling from the murder of his paranoid old grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), who died trying to defend himself from a long-limbed, eyeball-snatching creature called a hollowgast. (Of all the film’s design improvements, the hollowgast represents its most inspired, looking like a malicious, tentacle-mouthed twist on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” pumpkin king Jack Skellington.) No one quite believes Jacob’s firsthand account, though he cleverly manipulates his therapist (a hilariously “understanding” Allison Janney) into endorsing the trip to Wales, on the condition that his washed-up dad (Chris O’Dowd) accompanies him.
In the grand tradition of kid heroes who must circumvent their fuddy-duddy parents in order to accomplish great feats, Jacob manages to ditch his dad and locate Miss Peregrine’s loop, stepping back into 1943 to meet the children who had once been Abe’s closest companions. Some traits are undeniably genetic, and Jacob has inherited both his grandfather’s peculiarity and his taste in women. In fact, given the time-travel conceit, Jacob has the unique opportunity to swoon for the very same girl that Abe had loved so many years ago, a borderline-albino blonde bombshell named Emma (Ella Purnell), for whom screenwriter Jane Goldman (“Stardust”) has devised some deliciously romantic interactions, including a splendid reverse-“Titanic” love scene that sets up several key elements of the film’s finale, including a skeleton battle to rival the imagination of Ray Harryhausen.
Goldman’s frequently amusing script is the secret ingredient that makes “Miss Peregrine” such an appropriate fit for Burton’s peculiar sensibility, allowing the director to revisit and expand motifs and themes from his earlier work: With its time-skipping chronology and family-reconciling framing device, the entire tale could be another of Burton’s “Big Fish” stories (from the film of the same name); it offers opportunities for “Frankenweenie”-style stop-motion; there are ostracized freaks (and even a dino-shaped topiary) straight out of “Edward Scissorhands”; and its elaborate, meticulously decorated mansion manages to improve upon the wonky houses seen in “Beetlejuice” and “Dark Shadows.”
Perhaps it’s all a little bit too familiar for those who’ve been following Burton since the beginning. Although the director repeats more than he innovates this time around, for younger audiences, the film makes a terrific introduction to his blue-hued, forever-Halloween aesthetic. It’s clearly also an excuse for him to work with Green again after “Dark Shadows,” and rather than leaving audiences with the icky feeling that he’s twisting his leading lady to fit his admittedly kooky sensibility (as seemed to happen with Helena Bonham Carter and Lisa Marie), he appears to have met his match in Green. The already-outré “Penny Dreadful” star walks that razor-fine line between dignity and camp perhaps better than any other current actress — making for a partnership we can only hope to see continue.