Tim Burton returns to the dark and spooky with his adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ popular novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Tim Burton’s candy-coated suburban boredom colliding with the strange and supernatural has taken a backseat of late. With a rise in status Burton has dabbled with the themes that made outcasts embrace him as their own, but his consistency is lacking. When it was announced he’d be adapting Ransom Riggs’ popular YA novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it sounded like the perfect union of source material and director. Miss Peregrine is a return to form for Burton, hearkening back to personal works like Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, despite irritation the fans from the book will experience.
After his grandfather’s mysterious death, Jake (Asa Butterfield) travels to the remote Welsh island of Cairnholm in the hopes of visiting the school where his grandpa grew up. He soon discovers headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her home for peculiar children housed in a time loop that’s threatened by unusual scientists searching for immortality.
Burton’s touches are almost immediate: creepy credits crash into the sunny world of Florida, the land where everyone has “a .38 in [their] car.” (Mercifully we don’t spend much time in Florida to excessively mock the Sunshine State.) Burton’s a creature of habit. Like Edward Scissorhands, the suburbs have brightly painted houses and an appearance from Burton alumni O-Lan Jones. Young Jake could just as easily be young Ichabod Crane or young Willy Wonka.Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox
I don’t read young adult novels, but I gave Ransom Riggs a chance and was delightfully surprised by the results. The weird flea market photographs coupled with a tale of grief and friendship gives audiences a fun and whimsical introduction to a host of characters I’m interested in following.
The death of Jake’s grandpa is the novel and film’s catalyst, but Burton plays with the plot to enhance and, sadly, draw away from its meaning. Jake’s grandpa (played by the always droll Terence Stamp) adores his grandson, telling him the story of Miss Peregrine both to protect him and because the small child genuinely believes in their authenticity. In the novel this comes at the expense of a relationship between Jake and his father (played here by Chris O’Dowd). O’Dowd works with what amounts to a perpetually drunk, bumbling villain figure and the punch of his own jealousy at his son is lost.
Miss Peregrine and the time loop opens the door to Jake changing his life, and possibly preventing his grandpa’s death. A conversation between Jake and his grandfather midway through the film – missing in the novel – infuses a reunion between grandfather and grandson that is heartbreaking, particularly because of the choice Jake has to make: his newfound friends or the grandfather he adores. Screenwriter Jane Goldman’s third act revision undoes all the emotion and sentimentality derived from that choice. Jake gets everything and effectively ends the story with a “Peace out.” Considering Burton’s own fascination with death and people’s inability to say goodbye, Jake’s decision-making at the end seems callous.
Goldman’s script takes the basic tenets of Rigg’s text and translates them to screen, third act notwithstanding. Sure, character powers are swapped here and there, but before the final 30 minutes this is a solid adaptation. Burton’s aesthetic choices are perfectly suited to Riggs’ grimdark world hiding within normality, a time within and out of time. Burton’s use of stop-motion (or something passing for it) gives a fanastically frightening look to the Hollows. Riggs’ dark humor is also right within Burton’s wheelhouse; eyeball eating baddies, playing around with a corpse like it’s a puppet, and other scenes of the macabre creep you out more than the photos that accompany the novel.
It’s almost wasteful putting Eva Green in what amounts to a minor role despite being the title character. The first two-thirds cement Miss Peregrine as a kindhearted matron to a gang of eccentrics, but many of her attributes come off as underdeveloped to those unfamiliar with the novel. The lengthy backstory about ymbrynes – those with the ability to manipulate time – treats her turning into a bird like a cool gimmick, similar to all the children’s peculiarities. Green is a bad-ass passionately devoted to her children, but never dark enough to suit Burton’s world. She’s a shadow, playing on the periphery of the narrative. Samuel L. Jackson, in his second blockbuster of the year, is a fine villain but there’s no real development other than stock villain, regardless of the history presented.
Starting with Asa Butterfield’s Jake it is the children who take center stage. Butterfield’s wooden delivery limits him as a hero. As the sole “normal” character he isn’t as memorable as the peculiars, and that’s the fault of being the film’s straight man than anything else. Ella Purnell (looking like a cross between Alison Lohman in Big Fish and Sleepy Hollow’s Katrina), Lauren McCrostie and Finlay MacMillan shine as the various peculiars, and the effects work on everyone in the house is wonderful.
The film’s most refreshing element is things end tidily, probably for fear the franchise won’t continue. Either way Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children returns Burton to the world of adolescent outsiders with a solid cast worth watching. If the series continues a script that isn’t afraid of sentimentality would aid in caring more about the characters.