By Kirby Davis, Staff Writer
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” follows a pretty basic Young Adult book-to-film formula. But it has just enough impressive acting and stunning visual effects to prevent it from floundering like most YA adaptations before it (e.g. “The 5th Wave,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “City of Bones” and “The Maze Runner”).
This one is based off Ransom Riggs’ 2011 bestseller of the same name. Our protagonist is Jake (Asa Butterfield), a bored Florida teen with detached parents and no friends, who finds solace in his grandfather’s company and the man’s aging tales. His grandfather speaks of a home off the coast of Wales that he spent time in during the 1940s; the house allegedly protected children with magical powers (“peculiars”) and was run by a mysterious matriarch named Miss Peregrine (Eva Green).
When the old man is mysteriously and gruesomely killed, Jake’s father (Chris O’Dowd) accompanies his son to this remote island for closure. Jake discovers that the house exists after all, and so do its storied residents. In addition to Miss Peregrine, there’s a girl who controls fire and a boy who brings inanimate objects to life, as well as Emma (Ella Purnell), Jake’s love interest.
They live in a “Groundhog Day”-style loop that traps them in Sept. 3, 1943 forever. Living in the loop protects them from a wicked clan of outsiders (led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Barron) hunting them down. When their blissful isolation is threatened, the “peculiar” gang teams up with Jake to fight back.
Since “Miss Peregrine’s”’ source material is a YA novel (it’s currently dominating Barnes & Noble’s Teen section), I can’t condemn it for not being scary enough. Tim Burton’s directing elevates this could-be childish tale to a dazzling, innovative one.
I’ve never been a huge Burton fan, but I can’t think of anyone who could do a better job directing this film. It strikes a satisfying balance between reality and fantasy, and it’s borderline silly without going overboard on cringe-inducing humor.
The cast helps. Besides Butterfield’s stilted American accent (which I can’t even knock, because the film does so itself at one point), he holds his own against a delightfully dark Green and a loony Jackson.
Ella Purnell is also solid as the enigmatic, blonde-wigged Emma. Her “peculiarity” is the ability to fly. In addition to acting as Jake’s love interest, she serves as a guide for Jake in unraveling the mystery surrounding his grandfather, Miss Peregrine’s house and himself.
While the story’s historical allegories are a little heavy-handed (it’s 1943 Europe and the monsters hunting the kids are called “holo-gasts”), it’s the historical context that helps ground the far-fetched plot. The most terrifying villains in “Miss Peregrine’s” aren’t the eyeless gang of monsters after the kids but the Nazis bombing their house.
This film had me gripped until the climax, when it dissolves into candy-coated, cartoonish lunacy. As you can imagine, the kids band together to use their collective powers against the bad guys. The outcome is unsurprising and disappointing considering the creative scope of the rest of the story.
“Miss Peregrine’s” may not function well on its own as a horror/fantasy hybrid. But if you take into account the fact that it’s based on a relatively juvenile story, it’s enchanting enough to overlook its predictability. Plus, breaking from current tradition, there aren’t any sequels in the works to exploit the story for more than it’s worth.
There is a market for YA adaptations, but it peaked at 2012’s “Catching Fire” and has been on a steady decline ever since in both quality and box office success. “Miss Peregrine’s” can’t single-handedly revive the YA film adaptation genre, but it’s a step in the right direction.