No one mixes fear and fairytales with the same balance as Tim Burton. The director's most highly acclaimed films - most notably Edward Scissorhands - have the childlike wonder of fables with a distinctive gothic spookiness, and his latest Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is no exception. While clearly in line with Burton's unique vision, this adaptation of Ransom Riggs' bestselling novel stumbles with a narrative that is frustratingly unwilling to take risks.
Beginning on the sunny Florida coast, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children stars Asa Butterfield as Jake Portman, a misfit teenager who is thrown into turmoil following the mysterious death of his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp). Hoping to find closure, he heads to a small island of the coast of Wales with his father (Chris O'Dowd), where his grandfather grew up in a children's home run by the gentle Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Upon finding the ruins of the home, destroyed in a bomb blast in 1943, Jake meets the titular mistress and her wards, the peculiar children, who live in a tiny pocket of looping time, away from the prying world.
The peculiarities of the children are beautifully evoked. The waifish Emma (Ella Purnell), is lighter than air and must wear heavy lead shoes to remain earthbound; redhead Olive (Lauren McCrostie) has hands of fire; moody Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) imbues temporary life in macabre puppets; and, among others, Millard (voiced by an unseen Cameron King) is invisible save for his often-shed clothes. Burton has assembled an incredible cast of young actors for this movie, and even those who are featured less like the mysterious masked twins (Joseph and Thomas Odell) make a strong impression with their distinctive personalities.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children builds a gorgeous and absorbing world around fascinating lore, but where it stumbles is in the execution of its storytelling. The first two acts seem like exposition piled on top of exposition - the audience is repeatedly told about the odd time traveling concept that drives the film, but ultimately it feels slightly flimsy. Part of that is that the character of Miss Peregrine, a very interesting one and played with brilliant subtlety and nuance by Eva Green, is not explored to the fullest extent. Instead, the focus is a forced love story between Jake and Emma that never seems to blossom properly. The film's villain, Mr. Barron, despite a wonderfully hammy performance from Samuel L. Jackson, also seems a bit of a cipher.
Despite this narrative clumsiness, and some dicey action sequences toward the climax, on a technical level Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a roaring success. The visual effects are impressive - uncluttered, often beautiful, and even more often frightening. The visual style of the film is classic Tim Burton, and unlike his take on Alice in Wonderland, translates very well to 3D, so longtime fans will be more than pleased with the film on an aesthetic level. Special mention should also be made of costumer Colleen Atwood, who brings magic even to the World War II period outfits worn by the children, and the hair and makeup department who created incredible looks for each and every character.
If it had been more fully fleshed out - hard to do within the confines of a two-hour film - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children would have ultimately been a more satisfying film. As it stands, though, it's an engaging and sometimes breathtaking journey that proves that Tim Burton, despite a gradual shift toward more commercial fare, has lost very little of the spark that makes him one of the most distinctive directors working today.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday September 29th.