Adapting stories from books requires more than just a best-selling story. It needs a director who can encompass the ideals of the author and bring the internal vision to life, which is no easy feat, to be sure. However, it’s clear that tapping famed auteur Tim Burton (Beetlejuice/Big Fish/Dark Shadows) to adapt author Ransom Riggs’ 2011 bestseller Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for the big screen is a superb idea. This macabre, yet never morbid, kids’ tale aligns perfectly with Burton’s left-of-center view of the world.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) is your average teen until a horrific tragedy befalls his family. In search of answers, Jake journeys to Wales to track down an abandoned orphanage once under the care of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), only to find himself thrust into a hidden battle between extraordinary children and vicious monsters.
Don’t let the marketing fool you, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not another Harry Potter, nor is it a superhero film. While full of whimsy and magic, Miss Peregrine’s has more in common with the Brothers Grimm fairytales as it walks the line between wonder and peril, the fantastic and the gruesome. The cast of characters within Miss Peregrine fit well within a horror film, given their particular peculiarities – one can reanimate and control corpses, another harnesses fire from her hands, and another has a nest of bees living inside him. Through the eyes of Burton, the world is exactly as it should be, therefore there is no reason to fear a young girl with sharp gnashing teeth on the back of her head nor the sight of white-eyed villains gleefully eating a plate of recently plucked eyeballs. Burton is masterful at altering audience’s perception of the macabre by presenting everything in a matter-of-fact, ordinary way. Once accepted, the narrative becomes easier to follow as Jake’s adventure becomes increasingly more complex and dangerous. Helping Burton bring Ransom Riggs’ world to life is screenwriter Jane Goldman, whose work on films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Kingsman: The Secret Service featured the surreal-yet-grounded-in-reality adventures of large casts. As much as Burton’s style blends with Riggs’ imaginative story, Goldman’s adaptation ensures that all of the characters receive their due and none are without agency.
Like most book-to-film adaptations, the casting for the film is immense, yet, gratefully, never feels overstuffed. Clearly each actor has their place and none are given any more or less screen time than feels deserved. Asa Butterfield’s (Ender’s Game/Hugo) Jake is meant to be the bridge between the world we expect and the one hidden away. Jake’s internal turmoil over his role in the story is reasonable, however, Butterfield’s performance is consistently stiff or uncomfortable, making his dialogue delivery come across as more of a line reading. It’s unclear if this is a direct adaptation of the character from the novel, but Butterfield’s performance seems far too restricted and reserved. In contrast is Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight/Chi-Raq/Avengers: Age of Ultron) as Mr. Barron, whose peculiarity is never explained. He seeks out individuals with abilities so that he can use them to give himself immortality. As the villain, Jackson is charismatic and joyful to the point of glee. Almost immediately, Barron becomes a character audiences want to see more of as Jackson prances, jokes, and otherwise has a ball in the role. It feels odd wanting more of the villain than the hero, but Butterfield’s consistently dour delivery against Jackson’s charisma nearly makes you want to switch sides. No slouch herself, Eva Green (Casino Royale/Dark Shadows/Penny Dreadful) often portrays strong characters, and her skill for subtly is at work here. A peculiar with the gift to create 24-hour time loops, Miss Peregrine presents herself as a simple stern schoolmarm, who will dispatch any threat that could befall her children with extreme prejudice. This aspect would be horrifying in any other situation, yet, again, Green portrays Peregrine’s veracity with enough softness that those in her care never find her fearsome. This duality is necessary to pull off given the complexity of the story and how much audiences are expected to simply accept. The final member of the main story is Ella Purnell’s Emma Bloom, a peculiar with a gift for controlling air and whose connection to Jake seems to cross generations. The character of Emma could easily be characterized as simply a damsel who spends her time pining for what was or what could have been, yet Purnell’s performance adds nuisance to Riggs’ writing that places Emma in full control of the choices that surround her. She is neither beholden nor helpless and, like the other peculiar children, more than she appears.
The remaining cast of Miss Peregrine’s is a veritable who’s-who including Judi Dench (Skyfall), Allison Janney (The West Wing/Juno), Terence Stamp (Superman: The Movie/Yes Man), Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids/The I.T. Crowd), and Rupert Everett (Shrek 2). Impressively, Each of these actors, along with the ones making up Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children, are given enough time to become fully-formed with individuals that audience care for, rather than just background characters in Jake’s story.
Like the kids themselves, the film is a bit off-putting, but not without its charms. Though long, Miss Peregrine is never boring. Though full of murder, mutilation, and the macabre, it’s never grotesque or absurd and earns every bit of its PG-13 rating. Once audiences settle into the story, Miss Peregrine presents a delightful, whimsical adventure that relishes in finding joy in the peculiar.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.