With the success of Harry Potter and the Twilight sagas it is unsurprising that Hollywood, always eager to earn more money, is now seeking another series of popular young adult novels in hopes of creating their next profitable franchise, a policy which pointed to The Golden Compass in 2007, spun The Spiderwick Chronicles in 2008 and brought both Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones in 2013, none of which gained sufficient audience appreciation or earned enough to justify continuation.
The latest attempt to win the hearts and pocket money of young viewers is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a 2011 novel as unusual as its name might suggest, a combination of narrative and the photos of persons unknown collected by author Ransom Rigg at flea markets which inspired him to write the tale, the ideal subject for the crown prince of the peculiar, director Tim Burton, working from an adaptation by The Woman in Black‘s Jane Goldman.
Teenager Jake Portman (Ender’s Game‘s Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward outsider who has been raised on the magical stories of his grandfather Abraham (The Adjustment Bureau‘s Terence Stamp) is traumatised when he receives a distressed telephone call and rushes to be with him only to find him dying in the forest behind his house, his eyes torn out.
Jake refuses to rationalise the death of his grandfather and what he witnessed, but with his parents disinterested therapist Doctor Golan (an atypical role of almost silent posture for Mr Peabody & Sherman‘s Allison Janney) suggests that he and his father set out on a pilgrimage to Wales to help him accept what has happened by uncovering the truth behind the stories of orphanage for gifted children run by the magical Alma Peregrine.
What they find is that the orphanage did exist but was destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid in September 1943, but guided through a cave Jake finds himself in that long gone year, the guest of Miss Peregrine (Penny Dreadful‘s Eva Green) and her charges, hidden from the dark forces lead by another “peculiar,” the sinister Mr Barron (Kingsman: The Secret Service‘s Samuel L Jackson).
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a typical Tim Burton cocktail of the macabre and grotesque, Gothic design and eccentric humour, but unbalanced and overlong it’s a mediocre Hollywood superproduction unworthy to stand amongst classics such as Beetlejuice or Mars Attacks!, and as so often Burton is unsure who his target audience is, the juvenile simplicity and predictability beneath adults while younger children will find moments too scary, and parents will be concerned over the violence and disturbing imagery throughout and the normalisation of gun culture.
What atmosphere the film does have is principally through the performances of the ever-charismatic Terence Stamp providing a reassuring grounding, Eva Green as beautiful and stunning as she is dangerous when called to the defence of her children and the terrifying Samuel L Jackson, but too often the emotion is described rather than felt; all the characters feel muffled, typified by Jake’s pointless father Frank (Thor: The Dark World‘s Chris O’Dowd) who defers the trauma of learning the orphans died in the bombing to Doctor Golan then later blames her for Jake’s behaviour.
The rest of cast, principally the children playing the peculiars, are underused, never becoming more than the quirks which inevitably become useful as the story progresses but never becoming more than another part of Burton’s repeated obsessions. Though low-key by his standards, that’s all to the good as too often his work is overshadowed, almost beaten into submission by his compulsion to fill every corner of the screen with garish detail.
Despite the modern setting the Portmans exist in a frozen moment of fifties design, the camera static as it captures them on their factory fresh sofa, while in 1943 there is colour, life and moments of magic, the underwater ship Jake is shown by aerokinetic Emma Bloom (Maleficent‘s Ella Purnell), the puppets made by Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) stop motion grotesqueries puppets out of Burton’s early films and, above all, kindness and acceptance.
A whimsy on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, as pretty and pleasing and as insubstantial and forgettable as candy floss, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children appropriately ends up on Blackpool Pleasure beach for a digital reenactment of Jason and the Argonauts. A safe space for outsiders, a celebration of difference, it may not be saying much in a decade which has contained the lacklustre and obvious Big Eyes, the plodding and uneven Dark Shadows and the screeching monstrosity of Alice in Wonderland, but it is Burton’s best film for a long time.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in on general release now