Lately, investing in a Tim Burton ticket has felt like a bit of a roll of the dice. So I’ll just get this out of the way: While it doesn’t break the new conceptual ground of an Edward Scissorhands or a Beetlejuice, this is an entertaining journey that nicely blends Burton’s trademark aesthetics with adapted material.
The lonely kid who finds out they’ve got a supernatural legacy that opens the door to high adventure is fast on the way to careworn trope status, and the setup for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is cut firmly from the cloth of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and their ilk: Young Jake, played by Asa Butterfield, is moving listlessly through high school, struggling with growing up, not really connecting with anyone, when the catalyst of his grandfather Abe’s death gives him reason to believe the bedtime stories he fell asleep to as a lad might hint at hidden supernatural truths.
He follows the trail of breadcrumbs and finds himself traveling from America to Wales, where he becomes embroiled in the disturbingly lethal politics of the “Peculiar” – humans born with odd magical quirks and mutations, for reasons blessedly left vague. Peculiars hide from the waking world in “loops” – pockets of time and space maintained perpetually by a sect of avian-themed mystics.
Jake encounters the same pocket of Peculiars his grandfather associated with decades before – the exact same one, where it has existed essentially unchanged since his grandfather’s heyday, protected by the aloof, eccentric Alma Peregrine, capably personified by Eva Green. His grandfather’s teenage friends are still there, just like in his bedtime stories, and under siege from a disturbing threat.
When the Big Bad – Samuel L Jackson’s Baron – steps into the picture, things change a bit. We learn that yes, our guy is Peculiar, but rather than the cool powers his new friends have, his ability, without wading into the Bogs of Despoilment, is a utilitarian burden that puts him just far enough into the peculiar club to be useful as a scout and sentry, which means he’ll always have one foot in both worlds.
As Jake meets, then fights to save his incredible new friends, the film first delights, then darkens – Baron and company owe more to ancient fairy tales than recent retelling and their design for the titular Peculiar Children is violent and unkind.
It’s in this contrast – between showing the audience a hidden world with a childlike exuberance and allowing a certain darkness in to raise the stakes – that combines with signature visuals to define Burton’s style, and it is present here in a way arguably absent since 2012’s Frankenweenie, as he’s since been more occupied with either digressions from genre fiction or the role of producer.
Miss Peregrine also displays restraint, channeling Burton’s style in the service of the script. It fights the urge to degenerate into the discordant moments of pure whimsy that made for a lukewarm audience reaction to the tonally mixed Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland. Whether this is a function of a Burton returning to form, or the avoidance of yet another collaboration with Johnny Depp in favor of stable veteran actors like Chris O’Dowd and Terrance Stamp is speculation I’ll leave to the viewers, who should check out Miss Peregrine’s home for Peculiar Children if they are fans of Burton, Ransom Riggs’ original material, or other recent YA sci-fi/fantasy.