FILM REVIEW – MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. With Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp. Written by Jane Goldman. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril. 127 minutes.
Ransom Riggs’s trilogy of books that begins with MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN might not have seemed easily adaptable to the screen, but on the very short list of directors capable of doing it, Tim Burton was an obvious choice. Showing restraint is unusual for him, and letting the inherent weirdness of the story do the work, he has turned out his best film since “Sweeney Todd” (2007).
The story is complex, which is not the same as being too hard to understand. It just means you have to pay attention. Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is an out-of-sorts teen living in Florida whose world is shaken up when his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp) dies under mysterious circumstances. He discovers information that indicate the answers he seeks are at an orphanage on a remote island off the coast of Wales. The plot contrives to get him there so that he may go through a passage that will take him to the facility which is stuck in a time loop on a single day in 1943.
There he meets Emma (Ella Purnell) and other “peculiar” children who have strange abilities from being invisible to making plants grow to controlling air or fire. Jake isn’t quite sure what he’s doing there, but Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who can transform herself into a bird, welcomes him. It’s clear they all knew Jake’s grandfather and that Emma may have been in love with him.
Complicating matters are the “Hollowgasts” led by Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). These are peculiars who have gone bad, and have declared war on their fellow peculiars in hopes of gaining the secret to immortality. Barron and a few others have evolved from the monstrous Hollowgasts. It’s Jake’s task to discover his own peculiarity and see if he can save the day.
It’s all very imaginative and dark, which means parents should heed the PG-13 rating. Younger children who have not read the books–or were frightened by the later “Harry Potter” movies–might want to wait a bit. There are also a number of significant differences from the books, including the ending and the powers assigned to some of the children. Inevitably lost in the transition are the memorably bizarre photographs that served as the inspiration for the story. As with other good adaptations that differ from their sources, this one may be disappoint some of the books most loyal fans. It should be noted that the author has publicly approved of the resulting film.
The casting of the leads is solid, from Green’s pipe-smoking mother figure to Butterfield’s reluctant hero. If there’s a problem in the performances its mostly that of not having enough time for character development. When we get it, it pays off beautifully, as in the moment Jake finds himself on the phone in 1943 with his grandfather.
In trying to make this a self-contained story, the movie heads toward a resolution quite different from the book which becomes more involved and continues for two more volumes. Viewers of all ages who enjoy the movie should go on and read the books. And those who like Tim Burton best when his surreal world has a passing resemblance to our own (as in “Edward Scissorhands”) should give this film a look. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” turns out to be a very good match of filmmaker and story.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.