Dir: Tim Burton, 127 mins, starring: Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney, Judi Dench
There is a sense with Tim Burton’s work that he is continually remaking the same movie. Whether he is adapting Roald Dahl or Lewis Carroll or making Beetlejuice or Batman, his preoccupations remain the same. He relishes peculiarity. The heroes and heroines of his films are always the outsiders with the most vivid imaginations.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children isn’t his masterpiece but it will give audiences exactly what they expect from a Burton movie: Gothic flights of fantasy, ironic humour, juvenile whimsy and as much pathos as you will find anywhere this side of Charles Dickens. The Ransom Riggs novel from which it is adapted seems tailor-made for him. Like all his best work, the film is genuinely strange - creepy and endearing by turns.
With Christopher Lee and Vincent Price both now sadly dead, Burton turns to Terence Stamp to play the ageing magus found in so many of his movies. Abe Portman is a doddery old retiree, living in the Florida suburbs, seemingly suffering from dementia. His teenage grandson Jake (Asa Butterfield) dotes on him and believes implicitly in the wild stories Abe spins him about a special orphanage on a Welsh island run by the remarkable Miss Peregrine.
The grandfather has old black and white pictures of his friends from the home, all of whom seem vaguely freakish (one is actually invisible.) Jake is a likeable but gauche adolescent who works part time in the local supermarket. His parents fret about him and have sent him to a psychiatrist.
In tow with his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), Jake travels to Wales to see if he can find Miss Peregrine’s home and lay his inner demons to rest.
In its early scenes, the film is restrained by Burton standards. Florida looks pallid and a little murky (at least as seen through the 3D dark glasses.) It’s raining when Jake arrives in Wales. The local pub is pretty grim. The teenagers who guide Jake to the remains of Miss Peregrine’s home (which was bombed in the war) are surly and unfriendly - and rap very badly.
Then, the time travel begins and the filmmaking takes wing. Jake is whisked back to 1943. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, smoking a pipe and looking like a bluestocking version of Morticia Addams) and her charges are in a “loop;” they are living their own version of Groundhog Day, thereby avoiding the Nazi bomb which will destroy the home if time is allowed to move any further forward.
The residents of the home all have their own peculiarities. One little girl has shark-like teeth on the back of her neck, all the better for eating chicken. A boy has a hive of bees living inside him. Enoch (Finlay Macmillan) can make inanimate objects move. Emma (Ella Purnell) is a beautiful, blonde and ethereal: she floats through the air and has the ability to manipulate air.
Jake is accepted warmly by these charming misfits (although the jealous Enoch frowns on his intimacy with Emma.) Pitted against the “peculiars” are the “Hollows,” giant creatures which look as if they’ve stepped out of a very grotesque Francis Bacon painting - and Jake is about the only one who has the ability to see them.
Plot-wise, the film is sheer hokum. For reasons not entirely clear, the evil Barron (Samuel L. Jackson giving a pantomime villain style performance) wants to kill the peculiars and eat their eyeballs. The denouement to the story takes place on Blackpool pier. You’re never quite sure why Miss Peregrine turns herself into a bird of prey or just what purpose the cameo from Judi Dench serves. What isn’t in doubt, though, is the sheer protean force of Burton’s visual imagination.
Straddling a line between live action and animation, he throws in very spectacular, very surrealistic imagery. Rupert Everett pops up (again you’re not quite sure why) as a camp and sinister bird watcher with an impressive array of cameras and lenses. There’s an extraordinary sequence in which Ella and Jake visit an underwater liner, sunk during the First World War, and a very strange one in which funfair skeletons do battle with the Hallows.
You’re never quite sure how seriously to take the film. It is dealing with death, bereavement and persecution. It has some very dark elements, including oblique references to the Holocaust and some notably violent deaths. Even the most fraught moments are undercut with humour. This is a romp which has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Burton again demonstrates his ability to charm the kids and intrigue the adults with the sheer outlandishness of his storytelling.
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