By Richard von Busack
Ever since Batman (1989), Tim Burton has been called a director more interested in visuals and ambience than plot. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children doesn’t free him of the charge.
Young Jake (the Bud Cortish Asa Butterfield) was a boy once, and his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) told him bedtime stories of an island off the coast of Wales. There, during World War II, Abe had boarded with mutant children under the care of one Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a Victorian beauty with Cleopatra eyes, blue-black hair and a dark gown with puffy slashed sleeves.
Miss Peregrine and other women with her special talents—they’re called “ymbrynes”—create time loops to hide themselves and their charges from persecutors. Discovering this little time bubble, Abe is accepted as one of the mutant children. Almost immediately he falls for the lighter-than-air 16-year-old Emma (Ella Purnell). From Emma and Miss Peregrine, Jake learns of villains called “wights,” led by one Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). Barron and his “hollowgasts”—eyeless spidery monsters, invisible to all but the likes of Jake—consume the eyes of children. We see the devils gathered around their feast. Fresh eyeballs are stacked on a fancy cake platter as if they were petit fours. The grossness is satisfying; it’s like a wild tale heard on a school playground. Jackson is a real fright here: White, bulging eyeballs with pin-prick irises, bristling white hair and a mouth full of fangs. Jackson isn’t over the top—in his presence, the top bows with respect.
The sources for some of Burton’s ideas are clear—Jan Svankmajer, Ray Harryhausen, the paint-daubed “Id Monster” from Forbidden Planet and the pub-smashing scene in The Invisible Man. Yet there’s material that’s all Burton—a time-shifting finale set against a ghost-train on a Blackpool wharf; Olive (Lauren McCrostie), a fire-starter, brings a row of dead furnaces to blazing life with the stroke of her hand. The fantasy is delirious, full of the innovation and charm that marks Burton, even if the blueprint for it is so worn you can practically see daylight through it.