A teenager finds himself transported to an island where he must help protect a group of orphans with special powers from creatures intent on destroying them.
It’s a little surprising that it’s taken Tim Burton this long to make a film like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. For close to three decades now he’s been Hollywood’s go-to guy for a particular brand of flamboyant whimsy built around old-timey costumes, fantastical creatures and, more often than not, Johnny Depp (who does not appear here). It’s an approach that seems tailor-made for Hollywood’s post-Harry Potter obsession with tales of twee academies where magical and/or monstrous teens battle both hormones and demonic creatures. Perhaps Burton wanted to wait until the fad had passed before putting his stamp on it: whatever its flaws, his latest film remains a notch above misfires like Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
In present-day Florida, 16-year-old Jake (Asa Butterfield) struggles through his firmly average life. Once, the magical stories of his grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp) had him wanting to be an explorer; now he believes Abraham is senile, his stories just tall tales. But when Abraham dies in extremely mysterious circumstances – basically, a tentacle monster yanks his eyes out in a swamp – Jake becomes determined to follow up on his grandfather’s stories of a childhood spent in an orphanage full of fantastical children.
"Pays off on the promise held out by a Tim Burton film – the hope that we’ll be shown strange sights that illuminate the world in ways startling and new."
With his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd, displaying a very uneven American accent) with him, Jake travels to an island off the coast of Wales. There Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is in ruins, destroyed by a German bomb in 1943. But it seems it wasn’t just Miss Peregrine’s children that were peculiar: using her ability to manipulate time, the pipe-puffing, shape-changing Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) created a “loop” inside which it’s forever September 3rd, 1943 and where her pupils can live safe and sound – unless whatever killed Abraham tracks them down.
Schools full of super-powered teens aren’t exactly new even if you overlook the X-Men, but Burton – working from the novel by Ransom Riggs, with a script by Jane Goldman – at least makes these “peculiars” enjoyably quirky. Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell) needs lead boots to keep her from floating away; Enoch O'Connor (Finlay MacMillan) can reanimate the dead using tiny creepy beating hearts. One resident can display his dreams like a living movie projector, another is full of bees and a third has a giant sharp-toothed mouth in the back of her head. The fact their powers aren’t all that useful makes them more charming; this is the rare magical school that actually feels like somewhere fun to visit.
The peculiars deserve a better story than the one they’re stuck with here, which manages to be both overly complicated and clumsily obvious at the same time. Ideas like time travel loops that are lethal to some characters but not others and evil experiments that created monsters who later on stopped being monsters (but are still evil) who are now working with other monsters who are still monsters should have been a lot simpler, while the plot is basically “bad guy wants to kill magic kids for reasons”. Luckily both Green as the warmly haughty Miss Peregrine and Samuel L. Jackson as the gleefully evil Mr Barron are intensely charming, giving their stock standard characters some much-needed spark.
Over a decade since the first Harry Potter film, a school of magical teens isn’t exactly cause for wonder. Still, unlike some of Burton’s more painful recent efforts (Alice in Wonderland, anyone?), there’s a warmth to the performances here that gives this a life beyond his usual collection of impressive imagery. This film may become a bit of a muddle towards the end, but when Emma dives down to a sunken liner trailing air bubbles for her crush Jake to breathe as he follows, it’s a moment that pays off on the promise held out by a Tim Burton film – the hope that we’ll be shown strange sights that illuminate the world in ways startling and new.