By Tim Burton’s own admission his films are never strongest from a narrative perspective, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is dense in unraveling its mythology and nearly elliptical in story focus. It doesn’t matter much though, because Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children gives Burton a chance to bring to life a merry band of misfits and oft-kilter imagery, his two strongest points. Although a nagging sense of 20th Century Fox trying to find a replacement franchise for X-Men lingers throughout, and a sense of Burton’s nightmarish whimsy hovering on autopilot has lingered since Alice in Wonderland (although, Frankenweenie was a glorious high-point).
I’m not entirely sure what the plot involved in Miss Peregrine is exactly, there’s a home for mutants, I mean, peculiars, children born with unusual abilities, led by a headmistress (Eva Green) that can manipulate time and turn into a bird, and a rogue band of adult peculiars who eat eyeballs of the children in effort for immortality and to live outside of the of the time loops. Oh yeah, the peculiars have to leave everything behind to live in a time loop from various eras, with Miss Peregrine’s being stuck eternally in the mid-40s. Oh, and the bad guys are led by Samuel L. Jackson who can shape-shift and has invisible monsters made up of spidery limbs and sharp teeth with no eyes.
Burton’s particular visual eye and mordant humor roars back to life throughout Miss Peregrine, and it’s most enjoyably daffy when we simply sit back and observe the oddities. I mean, we get to watch Eva Green wander around various sets dressed in gorgeous midnight blue gowns, smoke a pipe, and generally be vampy and eccentric. If you can’t get enjoyment out of that, then you may not be the kind of person I would enjoy shooting the shit with.
While exposition and mythology dumps weigh the story down frequently, Burton still gets plenty of chances to fire off his mixture of absurd humor and terror. After the atmospheric opening credits, we immediately jump cut to a sunny expanse of Florida beach, and it feels like a horrific landscape that a tortured soul like Butterfield would want to flee for more eccentric waters. Or the ending battle between good and battle peculiars that finds us watching the spidery monster men fighting with reanimated skeletons, and quicker than you can say Ray Harryhausen, this moment feels ornately bizarre and hilarious in equal doses. The old Burton isn’t dead yet, even if he is buried in layers of corporate synergy lately.
Then there’s the ensemble of quirky supporting players, many of them memorable for their gimmicks than for personality, but it all adds up to a colorful world that’s fun to visit. There’s a girl with a monstrous mouth in the back of her head, a pair of twins who wears masks to cover their gorgon-like faces, an invisible boy who enjoys playing pranks, and a few characters who names I can actually remember! Like Lauren McCrostie’s Olive, a redhead who must wear rubber gloves or burn everything she touches, Finlay MacMillan’s brooding Irish heartthrob Enoch, who can reanimate the dead by placing hearts in their bodies, and Ella Purnell, a young actress who appears stitched together from Burton’s visual obsessions, as Emma, a willowy girl who can control the air.
Granted, reliable players like Judi Dench and Terence Stamp (how is he just now appearing in a Burton film!?) are given too little to do, but we also get the chance to watch Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, and Rupert Everett come play in Burton’s quirky cinematic world, and I hope all of them make return trips. And if any leading man seems primed to overthrow Johnny Depp as Burton’s premiere fetish object it has to be Asa Butterfield, who looks like a Burton drawing come to life with his large eyes, pale skin, raven hair, and gangly limbs.
Yet what stuck out most for me was the empathy that Burton brings to these kids. Beneath the aesthetics on display, even in Burton’s weaker efforts his visual acuity and sense of play is always a treat, there’s a real sense of yearning to make an emotional connection, of finding your tribe, of finding acceptance among your peers. After all, this is a film where one of the more memorable sights is of Butterfield pulling Purnell across a beach with a rope as she floats above him for all the tenderness and haunting lyrical qualities it displays. More of that and less of the whiz-bang pyrotechnics next time around, please.