Confused by the mysterious murder of his grandfather, Jake (Asa Butterfield) travels from Florida to Wales in search of answers. There, he finds a time loop that takes him from 2016 to 1943, and a school populated by extraordinary children — and their even more extraordinary headteacher.
We know Tim Burton’s Batman. We came very close to seeing his Superman. And if you ever wanted to know what Burton’s X-Men would look like, here’s your chance. For not only does Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children come from Fox, the studio that owns Marvel’s mighty mutants, and is written by Jane Goldman, who was responsible for one of the best films in that franchise, X-Men: First Class, but it’s about a home for gifted youngsters who possess frightening and shocking abilities that cause the outside world to hate and fear them. Okay, here the setting isn’t present day (well, mostly) New York, but 1943 Wales; the kids aren’t called mutants — rather, they’re peculiars — and their headteacher isn’t a bald bloke in a wheelchair but Eva Green in all her evergreen glory. Essentially, though, the debt is clear.
Being a Tim Burton film, there are key differences, of course. No X-Men movie to date has featured a scene where two stop-motion puppets have a knife fight, or a young girl who devours a chicken leg with the hidden mouth at the back of her head, or a group of rapacious rotters who feast on a plate full of human eyeballs. More’s the pity.
Dark, twisted and funny, Ransom Riggs' Peregrine books are right up Burton’s Beetlejuicy boulevard.
These are indeed decidedly Burtonesque flourishes, but they’re actually few and far between. Surprising, because the Peregrine books by author Ransom Riggs — who sounds like he escaped from a Burton movie himself — feel like they were assembled with the Wild-Haired Wizard Of Wackiness (TM, all rights reserved) in mind. They’re dark. They’re twisted. They’re wickedly funny. They’re right up Burton’s Beetlejuicy boulevard.
Yet this is the director in reserved mode. He’s clearly operating on a different level — there’s a not-so-subtle thread about the horrors of World War II, when one group of people was determined to wipe out those who were different in any way (the bad guys here are called Hollowgasts, a word not a million miles removed from holocaust). And, in moments such as the one where Miss Peregrine, essentially a human time-turner, stops the world seconds before a deadly German attack and rewinds it to the strains of Run Rabbit Run, Burton aims for, and achieves, awe where once he might have gone for guffaw. (Don’t even try to figure out the confusing time-travel shenanigans that drive the film — you have neither enough blackboard nor enough chalk.)
Green is a quirky delight with her borrowed-from-a-manga eyes constantly scrutinising her surroundings.
It still feels as though the director is holding back, though, perhaps concerned that audiences might baulk at an overdose of odd. Weirdly, he only goes full Burton for the utterly daft third act, featuring both a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it director cameo and arguably the worst down-with-da-kidz use of dance music in cinema history. Otherwise, the filmmaking is largely straightforward. It’s his first film in years to feature neither a Depp, a Bonham Carter or — most shockingly of all — a Danny Elfman score (there’s one for future pub quizzes), and it shows. It’s all a little bland, previously a four-letter word around Burton’s gaff. Even the hero — Asa Butterfield’s gawky, geeky, gangly Jake — has a standard hero’s journey, and Butterfield, a fine young actor, struggles to engage with the character.
Thank goodness, then, for the wonderful Eva Green. Don’t be fooled by the title — Miss Peregrine doesn’t show up for the first half-hour, then flits in and out (this is very much Jake’s story). But when she is on screen, Green is a quirky delight with her borrowed-from-a-manga eyes constantly scrutinising her surroundings (like a bird, you could say), and that crisp not-quite-French-nor-English-either accent mixing exposition with off-kilter lines about killing policemen. She’s having a blast, as is Samuel L. Jackson, who shows up even later in proceedings as the sharp-toothed, sharper-talking villain of the piece.
The peculiar children themselves are an impressively creepy kooky spooky ooky bunch. Ella Purnell (the new new Keira Knightley) as the lighter-than-air Emma is given most screen time, and a romance with Jake that fails the chemistry test, but whether it’s the mysterious shrouded twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell) or the mischievous invisible boy Millard (Cameron King), the kids are captivating. They’re clearly not alright — reliving the same day over and over again for a century has perhaps unburdened one of two of them of their sanity, something the film touches on but never really explores — but when they’re on screen, you want to know more about them. That’s how these potential franchises sucker you in, with the promise of what’s to come. If that involves Burton throwing off his shackles, though, we’re there. Perhaps we might suggest going whole hog: how about Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar X-Men?
While it's neither as dark, funny nor peculiar as you’d expect from Tim Burton, there’s still much here to admire.