Limitless imagination and droll practicality are permanently at war in much of Tim Burton’s best work. The director likes to feature manic young artists or outsiders willing to believe in the power of passionate expression over cynical conformity. Being surrounded by strong family units helps provide them shelter from fearful members of society who don’t understand the exceptional. Safety of home means everything to a fragile genius, and when it breaks down so does the world itself.
If the mid-1990s represented Burton’s creative peak (shout out to the singular Mars Attacks!), the last decade or so has seen him embrace visual spectacle over story and character. Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Eyes are especially emotionless, hollow and trite, essentially spent shell-casings of far superior work.
What’s missing from these big-budget plastic fairy tales is a sense of joy and discovery. Thankfully, Burton has momentarily rediscovered such genuine feeling with Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, a spirited adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ 2011 novel. For the first time in ages, he seems to be having fun with his material.
Much of Miss Peregrine’s spark stems from its lead character, Jake (Asa Butterfield), a resilient and nebbish teenager from Florida whose life changes permanently when his grandfather, Abe (Terrence Stamp), dies suspiciously. After spending years listening to the older man’s stories about a home for “peculiar” children run by the mysterious Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), Jake decides to investigate his secret family history himself by taking a trip to a small island off the coast of Wales.
Chaperoned by his doubtful and clueless father (Chris O’Dowd), Jake wants this to journey to reconcile the seamless overlap between fantasy and reality that has defined fables from his childhood. Disappointment seems inevitable, though, when he discovers the ruins of the eponymous home, left decimated decades ago by Nazi warplanes.
Except this is merely one version of things; Jake quickly finds himself lured into an alternate time loop where Miss Peregrine and her disciples live the same day in 1943 over and over again to evade the nefarious Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his cannibalistic eye-sucking “Hollows.”
While Miss Peregrine’s layered plotting and disjointed sense of time gets convoluted, Burton never loses track of the film’s soul. Jake’s varied relationships with the peculiar children, including light-as-a-feather Emma (Ella Purnell), feel deeply sincere and worthy of our attention. The film refuses to define these young characters by their special powers, as an X-Men installment might. Instead, each child’s “peculiarity” exists in tandem with those of their peers, an individual piece that fits into a larger collective puzzle of community.
Jake decides to jump down this rabbit hole with the utmost conviction. Burton follows suit, refreshingly throwing traditional logic out the window during the globetrotting climax. Here, Miss Peregrine’s visuals supplement the tangible danger of Barron and his henchman’s assault. One stellar stop-motion set piece set amid a bustling carnival that involves sword-swinging skeletons and tree-like monsters is a loving homage to Ray Harryhausen and Clash of the Titans.
Ultimately, Jake and his fellow peculiars seek a sense of serenity and togetherness. For Burton, sometimes only an extended family can provide true understanding. Teenagers everywhere can relate to feeling in a constant state of identity crisis, and Miss Peregrine, which opens Friday, Sept. 30, illuminates the gravity of these stakes without judgment.
With the exception of Abe, blood relatives become non-factors in Jake’s development as a unique individual. “Everything’s already been discovered,” his skeptical father proclaims early in the film. By the end, after witnessing sunken ships emerge from the deep and a devoted young man traverse multiple time loops to find true love, we feel the sadness and defeat of this statement. Jake and his peculiar friends do too, but they’ll be forging full steam ahead nonetheless. They will never be controlled by disbelief.