If there are two types of films more erroneously convinced of their own hipness than the young adult franchise and a new Tim Burton film, I can’t think of them. Yet Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, suffused though it may be with the trappings of both, emerges as a truly oddball entry. From the opening shot, a smash cut from the familiarly “ominous” fantasy-film credits sequence to the plain suburban beaches of Florida, Burton seems keen to offset expectations, not quite invigorated but far from his late complacency (Alice in Wonderland) or desperation (Big Eyes). And that’s even before the business of Samuel L. Jackson eating everyone’s eyeballs.
Despite Eva Green’s exciting presence at the forefront of its advertising, the film revolves instead around a truly dull Asa Butterfield as Jake, a bored misfit teenager who starts to believe his grandfather’s (Terence Stamp) fantastic stories of a youth spent with supernaturally-gifted children might just be true. Maybe it was the giant monster who just showed up at Grandpa’s house that sold it. Nobody believes him, but he convinces his dad (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to the house in Wales where these children – and their guardian, Miss Peregrine (Green) – are said to have lived, and may yet still.
Jake finds that he can still visit the house, the children, the guardian, by means of a time loop that takes him back to the 1940s. The war was just breaking out, and the house is on the eve of destruction. The children and Miss Peregrine know this. She has the power to move time back, which she’s done every night at 9:00 for decades. Wait any longer and a bomb will destroy their home. Move permanently into the present, into Jake’s time, and their age will catch up with them. They’ve been living inside of a day for over seventy years. They never age. They never leave. They’re trapped, and yet saved.
The film’s more formulaic latter half – a threat, a kidnapping, a mission, a battle – depends on the pure strangeness of its particulars, but this first half is genuinely lovely. Burton doesn’t make the house into a saccharine gloss on 1940s nostalgia. He trusts the nature of the story will bring all the sentiment he needs, and focuses instead on the routine the house goes through. There’s a squirrel that will fall each day, a call that must be answered with a mix of reverence and nonchalance. Burton enjoys their play, especially the way their “peculiarities” embolden them. One girl must be anchored to the ground or she’ll float away; one boy is invisible; another girl has great strength; another boy is filled with bees. They’re not exactly the X-Men, but their talents extend far enough beyond the ordinary to reflect the wonder of escape. Moreover, because of its setting and its link to his grandfather, the house becomes reflective of the reverence many young people feel towards their grandparents, and their secret desire to have lived in such a time.
Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman (best known for co-writing, yes, X-Men: First Class), adapting Ransom Riggs’ novel, thankfully avoid glamorizing the war, the worst of all possible traps. Each night when the bombers fly overhead, they’re a genuine, titanic threat, and there’s no magnificent army to save them should Miss Peregrine fail to reset the clock. The kids are not so powerful to survive or deflect their such a weapon. This avoidance eventually takes the form of pure fantasy, including reanimated skeletons battling a half-dozen monsters, by which point you’re either having fun with the silliness or are too bored stiff to care, but the war forever looms as catastrophe. There’s no suggestion that the children might be able to save the world, even by inevitably defeating the fantastical threat in front of them (in the form of an ever-exaggerated Samuel L. Jackson). They can do a little, and that’s enough.
Jackson is hardly alone in his over-emphatic performance style, and it’s right that Eva Green should be given a suitably flamboyant nemesis. While the film unfortunately pushes her towards the background as the plot gets moving, she makes as powerful an impression as ever in the first half, her arched eyebrow alone contrasting nicely with her panic when any matter escape her ability to master it. The other kids don’t fare much better than Butterfield, sadly. Burton doesn’t seem able to inspire their imaginations past a sort of proper English diction to communicate the plot and their role in it.
Burton has been trying to overcome his decreasing facility with actors for the better part of the past decade by increasing his focus on everything surrounding them, and this is the first time it’s truly paid off. Maybe it’s the new collaboration with production designer Gavin Bocquet after three straight runs with Rick Heinrichs. Bocquet’s sets have a sort of efficiency to them that disregards much of the “Tim Burton filter” that has been placed over those more recent films. The absence of that familiar “look” (which does crop up in two truly horrific re-animating scenes I will not spoil) emphasizes Burton’s perspective through the camera, reminding us that the iconic power of Edward Scissorhands came as much from how Burton framed his suburban neighborhood as what color the houses were painted. While we’ve had no shortage of Tim Burton™ Films over the years, this is the first in awhile that’s felt as distinct.