Quite a few commentators have dismissed the big-screen adaptation of the first volume in Ransom Riggs’ bestselling Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children young-adult series as “Tim Burton’s X-Men”. In comics we’ve learned to accept the coexistence of dozens of super-teams among the numerous universes over the past century, many of which aren’t superfluous and forgettable. Meanwhile in movies, someone gathers a few paranormals and no one can think of any other basis for comparison beyond the X-Men. Y’all do know “school for kids with powers” isn’t a rare pop culture concept anymore, right? Besides, I called dibs on the joke four years ago and beat the rush. See below.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: I wrote this section four years ago after I read the first novel and learned that Burton had optioned the rights:
[Its most distinguishing feature is] the unusual creative conceit behind it: Riggs amassed numerous bizarre, disturbing, or just plain head-scratching yesteryear photos of haunting-looking children and developed a narrative to string them together. Granted, anyone with bad vacation photos could muster at least a short story out of their own useless outtakes, but the photos in question elevate the project several levels above that.
On an overly reductive level, it’s a WWII-set X-Men vs. Groundhog Day. Jacob Portman is a present-day 16-year-old misfit who finagles his way to an obscure island near Wales to investigate his sketchy family history after his grandfather dies under violent circumstances. A trail of mystery and oddities leads Jacob into a place outside of time where a most unusual headmistress presides over a coterie of kids with impossible powers and features, here called “peculiars” instead of “mutants” — living in secret inside an endlessly repeating day for their own protection. There are super-powers, magical feats, disgusting things, poetic moments, terrifying evils, an open ending that begs for further journeys, and that mad, mad picture collection. I was left satisfied and ready for more.
As adapted by Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman (two X-Men movies and Stardust, among others), the basic framework remains in place. Mostly.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The plum role of the seemingly powerless Jacob fell to Asa Butterfield (Ender’s Game, Hugo), who’s grown seven feet taller since my wife and I watched him a few weeks ago in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas on Netflix. His useless birdwatcher dad is The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd; his barely-in-the-picture mom is Kim Dickens from Fear the Walking Dead. Dear old Grandpa Abe is Terence Stamp, playing a rare kind soul for once.
Miss Peregrine herself is Eva Green from the recently, suddenly concluded Penny Dreadful (my son’s a huge fan). Most of the kids are unknowns, though at least one has previous credits from a thing I recognize — super-strong Bronwyn is li’l Pixie Davies from AMC’s Humans. For value-added deep-cut trivia, the brief glimpses of her brother Victor are embodied by Louis Davison, son of Peter, the Fifth Doctor.
Jacob’s therapist has been changed from an “olive-skinned” male in the book (I still don’t get what that means) to Mom‘s Allison Janney onscreen. Late in the game, the Dame Judi Dench shows up as another “ymbryne” like Miss Peregrine — i.e., a time-stopping werebird headmistress. Rupert Everett (My Best Friend’s Wedding) is another birdwatcher competing for Dad’s finds.
The main cast also includes the following nonwhite people:
1. Samuel L. Jackson as the scenery-chewing bad guy.
I wouldn’t have expected much in 1943 Wales anyway, but I’m sure somewhere out there is a thinkpiece written by someone who watched the film three times just to scrutinize the background extras in the early scenes set in Florida, or in any of the later spoiler scenes (including one set in Japan, for all that’s worth). Not really my specialty.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Being different is okay. Dressing impeccably is a plus. Just because you don’t understand what someone is saying doesn’t mean they’re demented. There’s a bit of contrast between the family you’re born into versus the “family” that truly gets you, but it’s pretty awesome when they’re one and the same.
Otherwise, the gimmick’s the thing. In the book, the mysterious vintage photos were a creative writing exercise and not much more. The movie nods to them in an early scene but otherwise is a straightforward kids’-adventure story of good-weird vs. bad-weird.
Nitpicking? THEY CHANGED STUFF FROM THE BOOK AAAAAUUUUGH. Sorry, still working that out of my system. Normally I’m fine with adaptations deviating from source material, but there were so many changes that my brain wouldn’t stop fixating on them. A few of the children have changed ages. Pyrokinetic Emma has swapped powers with the permanently floating Olive, possibly to avoid obvious comparisons of the most prominent peculiar to either Firestarter or the Human Torch. Horace’s prophecies have been given a literally cinematic modification. One sweet would-be coupling from the book has swapped out one boy for another. Miss Peregrine is decades younger than I imagined, but…well, this is Hollywood.
The most egregious change comes when the last 20 minutes toss out the book altogether. The lighthouse is gone, at least two characters have their fates tinkered with, and the book’s 19th-century photo-plate aesthetic is ditched in favor of Pee-Wee/Beetlejuice rainbow pop-art spectacle. Halloween atmospherics disappear from the climax as Our Heroes convene for a wild-‘n’-wacky carnival showdown. It’s a jarring shift in gears, particularly for anyone who thought Burton would be a perfect match here. It’s worth noting Miss Peregrine is a rare instance of him adapting source material that wasn’t a beloved staple from his own childhood. This might explain the plot deviation late in the game toward an arena more to his liking, though I confess I had secretly hoped all the 1943 sequences would be shot in Ed Wood black-and-white with extra-thick shadows lurking in every corner.
At the same time, characters and sets seemed oddly straightforward. With past films and ensembles (Batman, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, to name a fraction) we’ve grown accustomed to the copious flourishes bearing his obvious hand in the concept art process, but here he largely sticks to their original appearances from Riggs’ lucky photo finds, even as they go through entirely different motions in brighter colors. A couple of exceptions: the clown twins receive a sufficiently ghastly tweak, and the mutation that was transferred from Olive to Emma receives a vigorous upgrade that infers levitation is basically an extension of Airbender power.
One crucial subplot barely hinted at is Emma’s angst about her role as Jacob’s potential love interest, what with her being chronologically decades older than him, not to mention being kindly Grandpa Zod’s ex-girlfriend. The extreme May-December dynamic might have been considered tough to tackle in a general-audience film, but avoiding any acknowledgment of it so they stand a chance of kissing guilt-free later seems tacky.
Though the monsters doing Jackson’s bidding are among the most inventive computer graphics on display, Jackson himself turns in one of his most perfunctory performances to date — hidden behind creepy contacts, fake monster teeth, and a Hammer-horror woodenness that might’ve worked better as an Ed Wood homage. I would’ve expected that from a child actor or two, but not him.
One nitpick of minor note: only in a Tim Burton cinematic universe would a sunken ship contain skeletons still sitting with perfect posture at the dinner tables where they died as they slowly sank into the depths. I’d expect that sort of stylish underwater tomb in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
(I haven’t decided if it counts as good or bad, but Jackson fans may appreciate the movie’s big out-of-nowhere Deep Blue Sea moment, even though he’s not around to wink at us when it happens.)
So what’s to like? I’m ready for a spinoff or at least a few internet shorts starring Bronwyn the silent, super-strong scene-stealer. And age aside, Eva Green rules the roost as the titular mentor, all business and precision with a fixed predatory gaze and the unshakeable confidence of a leader who knows exactly what will happen every second of the day in every square foot of her island because she’s clearly lived through that same day countless times with an exhaustive determination and an attention to detail that rivals Phil Connors’ but minus the smirk. Part of me wishes we were viewing events through her lenses while she saves the day front and center.
When Miss P and the awkwardly heroic Jacob are sorting through exposition and managing their shorter followers, their combined professionalism guides the audience through a suitable if eventually distorted tour of Riggs’ unique world. If you’ve never read a word of the original prose, at the very least Burton has brought to life a convenient visual intro to the intriguing cast. Personally I’d recommend hopping aboard the novels before Riggs reaches #17 or so. The first three do form a nice trilogy with just enough closure while resetting the stage for future adventures in a new direction. Those I plan to keep following regardless of whether or not Peregrine’s posse returns for any big-screen sequels.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children end credits. I thought it might be keen if Riggs’ memorable photo collection were to pop up while the names scroll, but all we get is a few recreations with the actors. On the other hand, fans will be either amused or let down to know that Dylan and Worm’s Welsh teen beatbox-rap not only made it into the film, but is listed as an actual song alongside artists such as Florence + the Machine and Nina Simone. Too bad they couldn’t join Team Peregrine, but they’re the wrong kind of peculiar.