I had several reasons for looking forward to seeing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the latest film from director Tim Burton. Two of my daughters had read the best-selling book by Ransom Riggs from which it’s adapted and loved it. Intrigued, and seeing it going spare while I was looking for something to read on our summer holiday, I followed suit and found it a real page-turner.
I also always feel compelled to check out a new Tim Burton film. I have a soft spot for his trademark kooky, gothic take on the world. There are definitely Burton movies I didn’t especially care for (his ‘reimagining’ of Planet of the Apes starring Mark ‘Marky Mark’ Wahlberg being by far the worst culprit) but the good ones roll off the tongue – Beetle Juice, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands and (a particular favourite within my family) The Nightmare before Christmas. Moreover, even the relatively disappointing efforts are always, at the very least, a visual treat.
The original book is perfect material for Burton. Interspersed with mysterious, creepy and downright bizarre old black and white photos, it tells the story of lonely teenager Jacob Portman’s quest to discover whether or not the tall tales his seemingly crazy grandfather told him of children with special powers with whom he’d shared an orphanage as a child are really true. This quest leads Jacob from Florida to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he gradually discovers his grandfather was perhaps not so mad after all.
The first half of Burton’s film sticks faithfully to the book. What’s majorly lacking, though, is its air of mystery and suspense. It all feels strangely rushed, swiftly hopping from one scene to the next with barely a pause for breath in order to get Jake to the orphanage as quickly as possible. In the novel Jacob doubts the sanity of both his grandfather and himself at times, taking on the role of detective in order to discover whether or not there really can be any truth to the photos. In Burton’s film, all of the information is laid on a plate for Jacob (Asa Butterfield) and, however unlikely everything he discovers may initially seem, he immediately accepts everything without any real sense of wonder.
It would be wrong to give too much away, but the rather convoluted and complicated plot (which somehow makes perfect sense when you read the book) involves time travel and the peculiar children of the title being hunted by monsters called hollowgasts and shapeshifting creatures known as wights.
Burton recreates the children’s world beautifully and there’s much enjoyment to be had watching them show off their various special powers within the grounds of the home. The numerous orphans include a boy who breathes bees, a girl who can start fires with her hands and Jacob’s love interest, Emma (played by the impressive Ella Purnell), who floats away unless she is wearing special lead-filled boots.
Presiding over the children is their pipe-smoking headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who can transform herself into a peregrine falcon and protects the children (both from aging and those that are hunting them) by creating a time loop in which they repeatedly relive exactly the same day in 1940.
Despite the film’s title this is very much Jacob’s story but, when she does appear on screen, Green’s Miss Peregrine hits just the right note of quirky – a sort of cross between Nanny McPhee and Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka.
Also on top form in his role as the main villain is Samuel L Jackson, who appears as the leader of the wights, Mr Barron, a wisecracking, menacing figure with white eyes and razor-sharp teeth. On that, a note of caution - both Jackson’s character and the hollowgast monsters are definitely not for more sensitive or faint-hearted children. The film is a 12A for good reason.
The final third deviates wildly from the book, but does tie everything up nicely without leaving you on a cliffhanger or feeling shortchanged that it’s merely setting up a sequel. It also includes the film’s best, and most ‘Burtonesque’, action sequence – featuring marauding stop-motion skeletons wreaking havoc at a funfair. However, this is all but ruined by the sudden appearance of a thumping soundtrack that feels like it’s been added in by mistake from the latest Transformers movie. A real misfire.
All in all, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children won’t go down in history as one of Burton’s best and, while far from terrible, feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Like pretty much all his films, though, it’s a feast for the eyes and there’s more than enough in there to make it worth the journey.