Flying on the wings of Tim Burton’s wildly peculiar imagination, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children should have enchanted audiences like its magical ymbryne who could manipulate time and morph into a bird. The 2016 film adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ supernatural New York Times bestseller had every element of fantasy, which should have charmed legions of fans who were supercharged by X-Men or fell under the spell of Harry Potter. There was so much hype surrounding Miss Peregrine that it even had its own Twitter hashtag: #bepeculiar.
Instead of existing forever in its own eternal time loop, what should have been a box-office phenomenon flickered for a second, then faded into the past. Even its magician of a director and otherworldly effects couldn’t make it float past a lukewarm opening weekend and forgettable reception. The hashtag soon vanished.
While some critics praised the movie as another Burton masterpiece, many argued that it was hardly more than the sum of its special effects. The tendency toward the fantastical and attention to background detail that had been previously seen as Burton’s strengths in films like Batman, Beetlejuice, and The Nightmare Before Christmas were now seen as trampling on the narrative.
Filmed in Portholland, Wales, Blackpool, England, Tampa, Florida, and the fairytale Torenhof Castle in Antwerp, Belgium, Miss Peregrine stars Eva Green in a luminous performance as the titular human-to-bird shapeshifter, along with Samuel L. Jackson, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, and Judi Dench.
Peculiars are like the fantasy genre version of X-Men—humans born with extraordinary abilities like levitation or (temporarily) reanimating the dead. Because of their rarity and the threats that loom in the outside world, they exist in time loops where the same day rewinds every 24 hours.
Jake Portman (Butterfield) is an angsty teenage boy who has no idea there is something different about his DNA until his grandfather’s savage murder sets off a whirlwind of events that throw Jake into situations he could never have imagined. He grew up on stories of monsters and a mysterious peculiar children’s home, which he thinks Grandpa Abe had only conjured as bedtime entertainment. Then something that looks like Slenderman, with dagger teeth and tentacles writhing in its mouth, appears in the old man’s Florida backyard.
After finding a mysterious note in the book Abe intended to give him for his birthday, (before his body was found with its eyes gouged out), Jake's psychiatrist suggests a trip to the remote island in Wales where his grandfather found shelter during World War II. He unknowingly passes into the time loop where everything is as it was in 1943. Children and teens with "peculiar" powers like firestarting and invisibility have inhabited the loop since then, and never grew up. Their utopia is forever shattered when the Hollogast or Hollows, the same ghastly things that murdered Jake’s grandfather, hunt them out of their bubble and into the unknown.
The paranormally gifted characters of Miss Peregrine are more relatable than you might think. If you can look beyond the boy with bees living in his stomach or the girl who can summon plants to grow out of nothing, they have the sort of vulnerability that comes with being misunderstood. The peculiars haven’t supercharged themselves to believe they can save the world. They are realistically fragile, which you can feel when they are suddenly faced with having to escape their loop and the Hollows that stalk them, and venture out into the rest of 1943 with a trembling uncertainty even as they raise shipwrecks to the surface and unleash a skeleton army for their own survival. Anyone who has ever been bullied will relate to these extraordinarily talented but outcast misfits, who have always existed on the fringe.
There is no doubt the special effects are enormous and often beyond imagining, but they are really more a part of the narrative than a distraction from it. The movie is not meant to be an elaborately costumed CGI circus with effects just for effects’ sake. Every digital enhancement emerges from a part of the novel that is necessary to breathing life into it. They showcase Burton’s extraordinary vision while bringing scenes from the cinematic story on Riggs’ pages into three dimensions with eerie transformations, drastic changes in the weather, strange powers that seem to normalize as the story progresses, and zombie skeletons that take down an entire swarm of Hollows.
Tim Burton lets his unbridled creativity run free from a suburb in Florida to the craggy cliffs and crashing waves of Wales. He often lets visuals do the talking, which may have backfired in movie reviews, but is sometimes all that is necessary to open the proverbial eyes of the audience to events unfolding before them, which a 127-minute movie would have no time to thoroughly describe in words. I would argue that cutting back on the SFX and enhancing the script would probably make it even more confusing. Despite what Burton’s critics say about this approach becoming a tangle of nonsensical things, no one ever said that genius had to make perfect sense.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children wasn’t popular enough to stay on Netflix for long. While accessible on a handful of sites, it isn’t as widely available for streaming as you would expect a Burton movie to be (believe me, because I have every TV and movie subscription service on the planet). Maybe those who would rather binge-watch box-office smashes don’t understand. If you do, you could be peculiar.