Review: 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children'

Tim Burton's new film finds great fun in a familiar formula
Eva Green plays Miss Peregrine in Tim Burton's latest movie based upon 'The Peculiar Children' series of young adult novels.

Ever since 1989's Batman, Tim Burton has been called a director more interested in visuals and ambience than plot. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children doesn't free him of the charge. The young adult novel plot schematics really show through the tremendous invention, enchantment and incomparably strange humor that only Burton can weave.

When the adolescent Jake (the Bud Cort-ish Asa Butterfield) was a boy, his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) told him bedtime stories of an island off the coast of Wales. There, during WWII, Abe stayed at a boarding house with mutant children under the care of one Miss Peregrine (Eva Green)—a Victorian beauty with Cleopatra eyes, blue-black hair, and a dark gown with puffy slashed sleeves.

Miss Peregrine and other women with her special talents—they're called "Ymbrynes"—create time loops to hide themselves and their charges from persecutors. Miss Peregrine's chosen date is Sept. 3, 1943, right before a Luftwaffe bomb destroyed the brick Gothic building they inhabit. With the help of a magic watch and a macabre 78 rpm record (Flanagan and Allen's 1939 "Run Rabbit")—Miss Peregrine rewinds time and gives her odd foster children another fine day to survive.

Discovering this little time bubble, Abe is accepted as one of the children. Almost immediately he falls for the lighter-than-air, 16-year-old Emma (Ella Purnell). From Emma and Miss Peregrine, Jake learns of villains called "wights," led by a man named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). Barron and his "hollowgasts"—eyeless spidery monsters, invisible to all but the likes of Jake—consume the eyes of children. We see the devils gathered around their feast, fresh eyeballs stacked on a fancy cake platter as if they were petits fours. The grossness is satisfying; it's like a wild tale heard on a school playground.

One of Miss Peregrine's children has an interesting talent: with the help of a special monocle, he can beam a visual representation of his dreams like a movie projector. It's a striking, delightful image if you don't think about it too hard.

Miss Peregrine has all the allegorical thickness one expects from a YA story: what are the eyeball-snatching monsters doing, if not defiling the pure vision of children? Here, as always, the grown-ups are the problem. They're real mudbloods about kid-raising. They're wet blankets. Jake's mother, played by Kim Dickens—the shrewd detective in Gone Girl—vanishes from the picture. Jake's father (Chris O'Dowd, with a fine American accent) is a slouch. He has dreams of writing a book about birds, and he justifies the father-son trip to Wales as a chance to do some research. But all his character does is put the brakes on the action until you tire of seeing O'Dowd in a new scene.

When the wights close in, the movie starts to gain some speed. Ever since he co-starred alongside John Cusack in 1408, Jackson has demonstrated a desire to be Vincent Price. Tim Burton is just the director to honor Jackson's wish. He's a real fright here: white bulging eyeballs with pin-prick irises, bristling white hair, and a mouth full of fangs. Jackson isn't over the top—in his presence, the top bows with respect.

The sources for some of Burton's ideas are clear—an homage to Czech puppeteer Jan Svankmajer, an invasion by Ray Harryhausen's skeleton warriors, the paint-daubed Id monster from Forbidden Planet, the pub-smashing scene in The Invisible Man. Yet there's material that's all Burton—a time-shifting finale set against a Ghost Train on a Blackpool wharf; Olive (Lauren McCrostie), a fire-starter, brings a row of dead furnaces blazing to life with the stroke of her hand. Emma uses her own skills to revive a drowned ocean liner, which sank so quickly that the skeletons of the passengers are still sitting calmly at their dinner tables. As for Green, if she's physically stiff—perhaps corseted—she wears the role of this sorceress with the authority of a superhero wearing a cape. The fantasy is delirious, even if the blueprint for it is so worn you can practically see daylight through it.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
PG-13; 127 Min.

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