Inspiration can strike a storyteller from anywhere. Such was a case for author Ransom Riggs. For him, his inspiration came from a hobby of collecting old and odd photographs. One day, he approached a publisher with the idea of creating a book of these pictures. His editors suggested taking those pictures and crafting a narrative from them, using the pictures as his guide. Using these old pictures, Ransom would come to create a young adult novel known as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Telling a delightful tale of adolescent adventure and morbid curiosities, its story was heightened by the use of these old photos to give an added depth of realism to its world. Of course, with the book and its sequels gaining popularity, the eye of Hollywood certainly caught sight of the work. Now, the book has been brought to the big screen, with Tim Burton leading the project as its director. Though the film does offer some inspired moments and fun performances, it loses a bit of the spark in the adaptation process.
Jacob Portman has faced a harsh turn in his life. Once, he was entertained by his grandfather’s stories about monsters and a home for children with unique gifts, until schoolyard mockery led him to stop believing in those tales. Now, he has witnessed the death of his grandfather and, for a brief moment, saw a glimpse of the monsters that his grandfather had described. Of course, most people believe that it was just a hallucination, an image conjured by the mind from the stress of seeing his grandfather die. When he finds a postcard in a book left for him by his grandfather, though, he remembers his grandfather’s dying words to “find the bird” and convinces his parents to let him journey to an island from his grandfather’s past. On this island, Jacob finds out that his grandfather’s stories were true. Though the home is destroyed in the modern day, there is a portal to the past where the home still stands. It is through this portal that Jacob meets Miss Peregrine, a sharp-minded shape-shifting woman who protects children with “peculiarities”. These peculiarities grant the kids unique powers, but having these gifts has put a target on their head. Monstrous, tentacled, invisible monsters known as Hollowghasts seek to hunt them down the kids and feast upon their eyes, led by the villainous Mr. Barron. Now, Jacob must take up his grandfather’s work and help protect the peculiar children from these monsters.
The film itself is alright. Though there are some flaws, there are still some strong elements to the film. For instance, Eva Green makes a wonderful pick as Miss Peregrine. She captures the playful brilliance of the character, displaying her keen wit and mind along with her concern for the peculiar children. Likewise, Samuel L. Jackson turns in a fun performance as Mr. Barron. Though there is definitely a threat that he presents, he plays Mr. Barron with an almost self-aware sense of his villainy, noting the tropes and realities of their situation with a sardonic flair. Aside from these performances, the film best shines when Burton is able to play around with the morbid elements of the story while using a playful touch. For instance, one of the peculiar children is a boy named Enoch, who possesses the power to bring dead things to life. Though it is displayed at a few points, there is a scene where he uses his power to revive a gang of skeletons. The result is a delightful sequence of Ray Harryhausen-style skeletons doing battle with the Hollowghasts, all in a carnival location. However, there are some definite flaws in this.
For one, Asa Butterfield does not turn in that good of a performance as Jacob. He comes across as rather wooden in his delivery, almost feeling like a blank slate in his approach. More than that, however, is in how standard parts of this film feel. Ever since the success of the Hunger Games franchise, studios have been looking for that next hit based on a young adult novel. However, the process that they take also changes the work along the way, trying to make a story fit into a formula that might lead to success. The result is the tropes and standard elements feel magnified, while the more unique components are not always given their due. Things like Jacob’s relationship with his father and his falling in love with a peculiar girl named Emma Bloom are familiar tropes for these stories and given focus, while some of the mythology and world-building of the story feels underdeveloped at the risk of the audience not totally understanding. That is really the biggest issue with the film: that it files away some of the uniqueness in favor of familiar formula. What made the original book special was not just its well-written story, but the unique idea of incorporating vintage trick photos as a part of the narrative. As for the film, it is able to shine when Burton can channel his unique approach in tackling the macabre with a playful tone. It is those moments that are the strongest, amid plenty of pieces that feel made to fit a checklist of young adult expectations.
Though there are some good performances and some delightfully morbid sequences, the film as a whole feels hampered and filed down to cash in on the successes of other young adult novel adaptations. The film can still offer some fun, but I would recommend more to check out the book.