Film Review: Tim Burton’s ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’

Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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 quasiorphanage 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.

Film Review: Tim Burton's 'Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 127 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release and presentation, in association with TSG Entertainment, of a Chernin Entertainment. Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping. Executive producers: Derek Frey, Katterli Frauenfelder, Nigel Gostelow, Ivana Lombardi.

Crew

Director: Tim Burton. Screenplay: Jane Goldman, based on the novel by Ransom Riggs. Camera (color): Bruno Delbonnel. Editor: Chris Lebenzon.

With

Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O'Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Pixie Davies, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Cameron King, Raffiella Chapman.

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  1. Jeanne says:

    I just this movie in blu ray loved it. Thank you for another entertaining movie Tim Burton.

  2. Smoky Tiger says:

    Tim Burton seems to have a problem seeing all the colors other people see.

  3. Kanes says:

    I loved it, and it’s totally true. This movie seems to be have done for Tim Burton to direct it.

  4. what a huge production! i cant even think of the last movie i saw with this many elaborate sets. great job of casting, lots of very talented young actors with big careers ahead of them. i loved the story line, its a little complicated but never dull, so you want to keep up with it. its gets slightly dark in places and i dont mean vid quality lol.

  5. OliSyndrigast says:

    A flop! Argh! Let see in the Hollows City if he can do better. Too much modification from the actual story and the plotting was awful.

  6. i love the movie, I love to watch

  7. EricJ says:

    Ladies and gentlemen, the only person in North America who is HAPPY that Burton remade Apes.

    Basically, we stopped caring about Burton’s ambiguously-gay clown faces (and misogynistic females) after the Alice movies. We didn’t go to see Looking Glass even when he -didn’t- direct it, just because it reminded us of him, and anyone who did go to see the first Alice took the pledge after Dark Shadows.
    Burton’s become a one-trick pony (“They don’t understand us unusual people!”, and you know which “unusual people” he means…), and all he has left is the aging hypnotized 90’s-high-school fans who hope the 80’s Disney-Haunted-Mansion Burton will come back bringing another “Nightmare Before Christmas” with him. Guys, he didn’t even direct -that- one.

  8. Stephan says:

    I usually love Tim Burton’s movies but to call him and “Sweeney Todd” a perfect match is really stretching it. He took a magnificent Broadway musical, practically an opera, and turned it into a minor piece of dreck. If you really want to see “Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, rent the DVD of the stage show starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. If you want a Reader’s Digest version, then see Tim Burton’s movie.

  9. Alex Meyer says:

    Can’t wait for this movie!

  10. IT--II--IT says:

    INTEL RUN Hollywood’s ‘latest’ in WHO needs IT ?

    someone tell the INTEL RUN ‘aritist’ -agent – – – SCAB Tim BURTON
    that art direction comes into it about fourth –after story —acting —music
    –and GENUINE creative spirit.

    THANKS

  11. Tulse Luper, Jr says:

    Wow. I bet Colleen Atwood, Costume Designer, and most likely Academy Award Nominee for this film might want her name listed under CREW….

  12. jfafilms says:

    “Hollywood’s most iconic auteur.” I don’t know this seems like a very dubious thesis. Most distinctive, most unique, has a peculiar, but singular brand, yes, but most iconic auteur is over selling it I think…

    • Lurker says:

      Some of the worst CGI i have ever seen ,and ive seen superman4 ,story was ok ,wouldnt let any kid under ten see it tho ,it wud put them in analasys ,..

  13. cadavra says:

    I would add DARK SHADOWS to the list of ideal match of director and material. The minute they announced it I thought, “Oh, man, this is gonna be fabulous.” And it was…though it was a shame Warners screwed up the marketing and distribution.

    • Jacques Strappe says:

      It was far more enjoyable than the mostly unflattering reviews

    • jfafilms says:

      I’m curious, I hear that an awful lot. They screwed up the marketing. Almost everyone on the planet earth was aware of Dark Shadows. How was that screwed up? The trailer wasn’t quirky enough? Is it possible audiences weren’t as enthusiastic as you were? It is possible the film wasn’t all that great, and audiences sussed it out?

      • EricJ says:

        “Totally misleading trailer. They sold it like it was ‘The Addams Family.'”

        There’s a reason for that–To Tim, it WAS The Addams Family. He’d been all set to do a B/W stop-motion Addams (three guesses why, considering that Bryan Singer wanted to do one, too), but the project fell through–Probably due to rights issues, considering it was still on Broadway as a musical at the time.
        Which is why Bryan Singer had to do his Addams tribute as a Munsters remake for TV, and try to turn -that- into a happy-dysfunctional gay-pride allegory.

      • “Almost everyone on the planet earth was aware of Dark Shadows”
        Nope, pretty much unheard of in Europe, it never aired here.

      • cadavra says:

        Okay, here are some examples:

        1) Totally misleading trailer. They sold it like it was “The Addams Family.” I know or have met many DS fans who refused to see it because they thought their favorite property had been mocked.

        2) Trailer didn’t pop until less than 60 days before it opened–way too late. Even a teaser attached to the second Downey Sherlock Holmes movie the preceding Christmas (which grossed nearly $200 million domestically) would have whetted many similar appetites for the film.

        3) There was zero merchandising. Not even T-shirts. With a nearly 50-year history and countless beloved characters, there were so many things they could have made. (Look at the billions Fox has earned from Simpsons stuff.) But what do you expect from a company that can’t even manage its legendary cartoon characters properly?

        And on the distribution side, they scheduled it a week–one week–after the opening of THE AVENGERS. They lost most of their IMAX screens because nobody was going to pull a picture that opened to over $200 million. Had it opened in, say, March, where its only serious competition would have been a kiddie movie (THE LORAX) and a teen-girl actioner (THE HUNGER GAMES), it’d have fared much better. As it is, it was a miracle it did as well as it did do ($80 million domestic, $250 million worldwide).

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