Miss Peregrine’s school provides sanctuary for children whose unusual gifts would be misunderstood by the muggle population. And Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children provides a star-studded treat for cinema goers with an appetite for the weird and wonderful and a high tolerance for bad dialogue.
Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is a solitary boy. Out of step with his peers and at a loss for the tools to topple the wall that exists between his reality and his parents’. The one person on this earth who truly sees Jake is his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp). Until dark forces drag Abe out of reach and Jake must face the challenges of a strange new world alone.
Raised on his grandfather’s fanciful stories of adventure, and covertly coached to be an adventurer himself, the mourning teen cannot resist seeking out the place where Abe’s taste for the far fetched seemingly began. Dubious about his wilder claims Jake is nonetheless intrigued to visit Abe’s trusted friend Miss Peregrine. A postcard from the past beckons him to follow in Abe’s footsteps and his peculiar journey begins…
A step back in time convinces Jake that everything he was taught as a child was true. Miss Peregrine’s school is as real as Abe’s enduring love for his grandson. And its inhabitants desperately need Jake’s help. Captivated by his tour guide Emma (Ella Purnell) – anchored to the earth by her lead shoes and heavy heart – he quickly learns why he is so comfortable among the peculiar pupils and quite how much danger his new friends face.
Burton is a past master at illustrating tall tales and he has finally returned to form. Mesmerising and deliciously eccentric, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a visual feast. Unfortunately the meagre script is less hearty fare. The surprisingly clunky and pedestrian screenplay by Jane Goldman (whose adjectives usually dance on the tongues of her cast) hobbles along like a panto pirate, tripping over wooden attempts at humour and squandering the generous cameo performances it ought to have wordily indulged.
The evocative genius and scope of Colleen Atwood’s Narnian wardrobe and a stunning photographic credit sequence (inspired by Ransom Riggs’ original vision for his source novel) lends every character their own compelling narrative. It is such a pity then that those stories remain largely unexplored. Time squandered on the awkward father/son dynamic would have been far better spent on each peculiar child. Chris O’Dowd – whose gift for comedy is undeniable – fails to provoke a single smile as Jake’s bewildered twitcher dad.
Fortunately Eva Green could not have been better suited to the role of Miss Peregrine had Tim Burton himself sculpted her from feathers, fairy dust and Samurai steel. She is luminous and utterly bewitching. A mixologist whose performance froths together Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins to obscure the operatic loss, fury and powerlessness beneath Miss Peregrine’s unassailable poise. An essential soothing presence as the story darkens.
Asa Butterfield also convinces – and compels sympathy – as the lonely and conflicted Jake. Jake shares many characteristics with Hugo (who Butterfield played for Martin Scorsese in his 2011 film of the same name) and the young actor is sure footed on this familiar ground. Samuel L. Jackson wins MVP for the baddies with his gleefully snarling Mr. Barron. As leader of the eyeball munching, child-hunting Wights he presents the human face of a team of monsters so genuinely unsettling that the 12A rating seems almost lax.
There is a lot not to love about this film. Yet somehow one still falls under its spell. The advantages of the 3D treatment are negligible (save one standout freeze frame of a falling bomb poised, horrifically solid, amidst plump undulating droplets of rain) because the entire feature is so very lovely to look at. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is spellbinding: the ultimate payoff for an early underwater sequence equally breathtaking in appearance and timing. And the final fight will make all but the blackest hearts sing.
The world needs more children’s movies which dare to push the boundaries between darkness and light. If ever there was a director prepared to blow out all the candles and let the shadows scurry closer it is Tim Burton who has sufficient puff. We grew up enjoying audaciously scary storytelling on the big screen. Our children deserve to feel that fear too!
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children opens on 29th September