Not since 2005’s Corpse Bride has as story been so suited to that unique and nonpareil auteur, Tim Burton. In his latest film, the director has taken Ransom Rigg’s best-selling novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and stamped on it his trademark dark, strange magic.
Caught in the time between childhood and full-on teenage angst, 13-year old Jake’s life is turned on its head when he finds the body of his beloved grandfather, Abe, in a creepy forest. The old man’s eyes have been removed, and before he dies, Abe confesses he ought to have told Jake (Asa Butterfield) the ‘truth’ and gives him a mysterious directive involving a postcard. In the mist, Jake spots some kind of creature, and makes a run for it.
Jake had a childhood filled with his grandfather’s stories about an orphanage he went to with a set of ‘peculiar’ friends who could do magic, and tales of a lifelong quest to hunt down monsters. Grandpa Abe even had photos of these friends who could float, or were invisible, or could reanimate inanimate objects.
After Abe’s death, Jake is handed the box with these photos, and a postcard from a Miss Peregrine at the orphanage on a small Welsh island, Cairnholm. Jake convinces his father to take him on a trip there but is devastated to discover the cottage had been bombed by the Nazis in World War II and that all its occupants were killed. And yet, Jake is still drawn to the shell of a house and returns there again. It’s then that he sees a group of children dressed in old-fashioned clothes, the very ones from his grandfather’s photos.
Jake is taken through a passage in the hill, back in time, to the cottage before it was destroyed. There, he is welcomed by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), the fiercely protective, regal, yet loving foster mother to the group of children. It is she who reveals the truth to Jake, that he too is special, and that he’s meant to protect them from a group of awful monsters, known as Hollowgasts or Hollows. Hollows become immortal by feeding on the eyes of peculiar children. The group is protected in a time loop but it appears this may not last for long. Jake is faced with an impossible choice: go back to his own time and his real family, or help Miss Peregrine’s children and stay stuck in 1942 forever. Only together can they fight the Hollows, and the monsters’ psychotic leader, Mr Barron (creepy Samuel L. Jackson).
This story has elements of X-Men (recessive genes cause the children’s various magical abilities), Harry Potter (a school where children learn to embrace their strangeness), and Burton’s Big Fish (the magic of the childhood story). Visually, Burton draws on Edward Scissorhands and his characteristic Halloween ‘style’ when creating his grotesque and macabre monsters.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a film that is part coming-of-age, part magical journey, part good vs evil. The story can be seen as a metaphor for the German invasion, the Hollowgasts (a play on Holocaust) are symbols of Nazis who consumed the lives of those who were different to them. It is also a tale of love and friendship. Despite living in suspended time, these children have the same experiences as their counterparts in the real world. There is a lovely, subtle romance between Jake and Emma (Ella Purnell), the girl who commands air and exquisitely floats like a balloon, which is contrasted by the teenage jealousy of Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), the boy who can bring inanimate objects to life for short periods (featuring gorgeous and grim stop-motion creations). Emma has a yearning for something beyond the confines of the cottage and the banality of repeating one day over and over. Every day she has to rescue the same squirrel from the tree. Every night the children gather outside the cottage in gas masks to watch Miss Peregrine wind back the clock just as a bomb is about to hit the house.
While Jake is the protagonist, it is Eva Green’s Miss Peregrine that anchors this story and film. In Green, Burton seems to have found a new muse. Her otherworldly beauty and mystery make Miss Peregrine a strangely fascinating and magnetic character. Miss Peregrine’s peculiarity is being an Ymbryne, someone who can create Groundhog Day-like 24-hour time loops to protect peculiar children, but who can also take the form of a bird. Green’s long black nails recall talons and her midnight blue dress the feathers of the magnificent peregrine falcon she can swoop into.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is hardly just for children. Burton previously said that the things you see as a child stays with you for life (something he also explored in Big Fish). Fantasy is but a metaphor for reality. This film has a universal message and one that is so entrenched in Burton’s work: embrace the strange, the unusual, the peculiar, and that which makes no sense. Being different is brave and right. The macabre is sublime.
This film does what it’s meant to – it transports the viewer to another world, one so unusual it astonishes. Burton isn’t really doing anything new with this film, visually or otherwise, but all you really want with his work is to marvel, to be transported, to be a child again and to believe. I might have wished for something a little darker, but Burton is not working with his own script. Still, there is enough that is both whimsical and foreboding in this film. And the lovely visuals, including the stop-motion animation and a scaling back of digital enhancements, make it worth watching on the big screen.
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Ella Purnell
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 07 October 2016