It began with a set of old photographs. They were vintage, black and white and slightly worn. The images portrayed unusual looking children in settings that appeared either mysterious, haunted or just plain peculiar. Author Ransom Riggs thought they could be published together as a picture book, but his editor had another idea. Why not write a fictional story and use the pictures as a plot device? The book became Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and it went on to become a New York Times best seller. Written as something Tim Burton would naturally gravitate towards, the book is now a film, and just like the story’s origins, it begins with a set of old photographs.
All of his life, sixteen year-old Jacob (Asa Butterfield) has heard stories from his eccentric grandfather (Terrence Stamp) about an overseas orphanage, home for special children with peculiar talents. Most think grandfather suffers from dementia which is why no one, other than maybe Jacob, believes the old man, even though he has a box of old black and white pictures of those special children to prove it. One child is said to make fire with her hands, another stores bees in his stomach, while another is lighter than air and would float away if it wasn’t for the hefty, gravity inducing boots she has to wear. And there are more of them.
Then something terrible happens. Grandfather is killed by the unexplainable; a monstrous looking creature that only young Jacob could see. “I know you think I’m crazy,” a dying grandfather mutters to the boy after advising his grandson to look for the orphanage, “But the bird will tell you everything.”
Following the advice of Jacob’s psychiatrist (Allison Janney) who convinces the boy’s family to allow the teenager to finally investigate grandfather’s claims, Jacob and his less than tolerant father (Chris O’Dowd) fly to a village in Wales, the place where grandfather had always claimed to be home to the orphanage. What follows is an adventure involving time loops, creepy monsters, undead human creatures with a taste for eyeballs, World War ll German air raids, and some very peculiar children; and right at the center is the mistress to the orphanage, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a woman who among her many talents (like turning into a peregrine falcon at will) is also a dead shot with a crossbow.
Another of Miss Peregrine’s talents is creating time loops where the events of a day are continually repeated. In 1943 during a German Luftwaffe air raid on Britain, a bomb was about to be dropped on the orphanage. In a hurried moment seconds before the damage was about to be done, Miss Peregrine stopped time and created a loop that could never be altered. In a situation not unlike Groundhog Day, time for the orphanage and all the children within the loop will now and forever be a single day in 1943, always ending with Miss Peregrine stopping that bomb from dropping. And that’s the world Jacob stumbles upon.
Colleagues who have read the book insist that on the page it all makes sense, but on film things tend to get messy. Whether that’s a problem of Jane Goldman’s script or Tim Burton’s direction is difficult to say, but with a story this involved and with so many oddball characters continually stepping in and out of time loops from present day to 1943 and back again it’s often difficult to know where you are. Clarity is not one of the film’s peculiar talents. And yet, there’s a heart at the center of the film that keeps you intrigued. Even if a world of logic has no place in Miss Peregrine’s manipulation of time, there are moments of humor and even a feel of lyrical beauty that keeps you engaged, even charmed.
When those German planes fly overhead, in a moment of theatrical eccentricity, Miss Peregrine plays an old gramophone recording of the Flanagan and Allen classic Run Rabbit Run. It sounds like a child’s song but was, in fact, a satirical poke at the Luftwaffe who on its first ineffectual air raid over England was said to have killed only two rabbits. There’s the evening entertainment where the children gather in the orphanage parlor to watch what looks like home movies but are really the prophetic dreams of one of the children projected from his mind through a lens as moving images on a screen. Then there’s the gallows humor of a child who can give temporary life to dead or inanimate objects. “You should have seen some of the fights at my uncle’s funeral parlor,” he proudly states.
But once the plot revolving around why Jacob’s grandfather was killed, the unveiling of the monsters responsible and why they want the children in Miss Peregrine’s orphanage, everything suddenly feels cluttered and unfocused. It’s as if a combination of books and a bottomless pit of freaky ideas were adapted and unsuccessfully compressed into one murky narrative.
As you might expect, director Burton’s overall dark scenic design is heavily detailed and eye-catching, plus the climactic chase in England’s present-day seaside town of Blackpool, the ballroom dancing capital of the world, is a genuine, end-of-the pier thrill ride. But it’s that plot and its many layers that bog things down. As a film, the story requires streamlining, but by doing so, the very thing that readers of the popular novel loved would be lost. Despite some scenes of genuine movie magic – the underwater scene with Jacob and Emma (Ella Purnell) is particularly imaginative – and a script that really tries, maybe in the end Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not really one meant for the screen. Perhaps it should have remained where it began, with those atmospheric and just a little creepy archival photographs.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 127 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)