Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

October 6, 2016
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Tim Burton is Hollywood’s greatest celebrant of non-conformity. This is partly a reflection of his own battles with studios to make the movies he wants, the way he wants. Throughout his career one can feel the ebb and flow of that drive as he wins some rounds and loses others.

My favourite Burton films are his portraits of sincere but deluded artists in Ed Wood (1994) and Big Eyes (2014). There have also been brilliant animations and dark fantasies featuring such memorable characters as the tremulous Edward Scissorhands, the outrageous Beetlejuice, and a moody, troubled Batman.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children belongs with the fantasies. It’s a coming-of-age tale that tells its audience it’s OK to be different – or “peculiar”. The protagonist, a teenage boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield), seems completely ordinary when we meet him stacking shelves in a supermarket in Florida. But a night-time visit to the home of his distressed grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), changes everything.

A chain of events is set in place that will see Jake and his father travelling to the tiny island of Cairnholm, off the coast of Wales, to investigate the school Abe once attended. As we learn from flashbacks, Miss Peregrine’s establishment was the focus of many stories Abe told his grandson, introducing him to the other pupils and their freakish abilities.

Upon arriving on the island, Jake’s dad pursues his bird-watching hobby while letting his son check out the ruined school, which was destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War. When Jake is suddenly confronted with the characters from his grandfather’s stories, he discovers the school still exists in a time loop that replays a single day in September 1943 in perpetuity. The loop is the work of headmistress, Miss Peregrine (a splendid Eva Green), who was able to stop time an instant before the conflagration. Her other party trick is the ability to change into a falcon at will.

Although the date makes one think of the historic persecution of the Jews, Burton slips quickly into the realms of the uncanny. Among the pupils there is Emma, who is lighter than air and needs to be held down with lead shoes; Millard, the invisible boy; Olive who generates heat from her hands; and Enoch, who has the ability to instill life temporarily into dead bodies and inanimate forms.

The threat that hangs over the school is posed by an evil member of the ‘peculiar’ sect named Mr. Barron (a suitably maniacal Samuel L. Jackson), who is hunting down students and teachers to use in his experiments. The more visceral threat comes from the hollowgasts, a group of savage, invisible monsters generated by an earlier experiment of Barron’s that went awry.

Barron has found that the only way for a hollowgast to attain human form is to eat a sufficient quantity of eyeballs taken from peculiars. It turns out that Jake’s own peculiarity is an ability to see these creatures, which makes him supremely qualified to be the protector of the group.

I won’t dwell on the details of a story full of fantastic twists and startling, grotesque imagery. The strength of the film is that it never loses touch with psychological reality. Jake begins with doubts about his grandfather’s sanity, and worries about his own state of mind after glimpsing the looming outline of a hollowgast. Miss Peregrine’s children are peculiar only in their special powers – otherwise they are a plausible mix of personalities, from dandified Horace to spiteful Enoch.

Jane Goldman’s script strikes exactly the right notes, especially when Barron reduces his fellow ghouls to silence by hinting at the horrors of spending three weeks in Florida. A lesser writer or director might have turned the entire movie into a melodrama about good versus evil, supported by a barrage of computer-generated action sequences.

Although there is a huge amount of CGI in this film, Burton never allows the gimmickry to overpower the story. The spectacle is at the service of the plot, not in competition with it. There are numerous sly references to Burton’s own back catalogue and to favourite films of the past. If the topiary makes it seem as if Edward Scissorhands has been at work in the garden, a group of animated skeletons pays homage to the special effects of Ray Harryhausen in films such as Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Burton has never believed that one should spare the sensibilities of children, and the pace and sparkle of the story allows leeway for some nightmarish creations. The hollowgasts are unforgettably scary: tall, eyeless, with blade-like limbs, and tentacles that sprout from their faces to devour the eyes of their victims.

From the opening scene of Bunuel and DalĂ­’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), where an eyeball is sliced open, directors have known there is something especially chilling about an assault on the organ of sight. Burton goes so far as to show Barron and his colleagues feasting on a mound of eyeballs piled up like profiteroles. Rarely has there been a better symbol for the way a movie can get us to look eagerly upon scenes of horror that could never be endured outside the cinema.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Jane Goldman after a novel by Ransom Riggs
Starring Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Chris O’Dowd, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Finlay MacMillan
UK/Belgium/USA, rated M, 127 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 1st October, 2016.