In another dark and delirious fairy tale from director Tim Burton, children aren’t so much gifted with special powers as cursed with them.
Asa Butterfield (a good few feet taller than he was in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) takes a long while to understand what it is that makes him different, and it’s that mystery that keeps you watching as much as his outward journey through a fantastical world conjured by Burton in typically meticulous, gothic style.
Ransom Riggs’s novel, on which Jane Goldman’s script is based, is itself inspired by old photos collected by the author where everyday scenes are skewed by something a little bit out of the ordinary. Likewise, Butterfield, as Jake, has the sort of Victorian pallor and haunted hangdog expression that might have been pictured in an old sepia photograph – or, for that matter, any number of Tim Burton films.
Besides this, there are few hints at what marks Jake out from the crowd, except what his dad (Chris O’Dowd) terms “a mental issue” after the boy finds grandad Abe (Terence Stamp) dying in the woods around his Florida home, his eyeballs plucked out.
More than just spooky, the film is downright scary at times (younger children be warned) and Jake can’t shake the image of what appeared to be a monster lurking in the trees that night. With its spidery long limbs and eyeless face, it’s reminiscent of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth and it, too, has a hunger for the soft, fleshy parts of children, but only “peculiar children”. Jake comes across a small group of them when he travels with his father to the drizzly Welsh island of Cairnholm, hoping to put the ghost of his grandad to rest.
The old man grew up there in a care home under the auspices of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, fabulous as a kohl-eyed Mary Poppins), but in a very intricate conceit, he only finds them after stepping into a “loop” in time created by Miss P with her own peculiar powers. Among her charges is a little girl with superhuman strength, but most of them have quite useless abnormalities, like another little girl with a mouth in the back of her head and a boy with bees in his belly.
Unlike your standard Marvel mutants, these kids are totally uncool, and in many ways that makes their predicament as outsiders more acute. They are forever trapped in a single day during the Second World War – albeit a sunny Technicolor one – and every night Miss Peregrine must roll back the clock from the moment just before a bombing raid decimates the building.
While the rules of this universe are convoluted, they do bring about memorable scenes, including the bombing, and the tragedy of the situation is heightened by romantic undercurrents as Jake falls for Emma (Ella Purnell), a girl who is lighter than air and must be anchored by lead boots. When she takes him to her hideaway, under water, it’s the cue for another spectacular sequence that brings to mind scenes from Titanic – if the romance had continued after the ship had sunk.
The gorgeous gloom that is a trademark of Burton’s films is always secondary to a playful yet sincere exploration of death and grief. It’s the same here, with the manipulation of time and Jake’s evolution as hero adding to the poignancy. His brand of impish humour and the in-your-face weirdness of it all means Burton can never quite bridge the gap to make something truly heart-wrenching, but he makes up for that with otherworldly atmosphere and spine-chilling thrills aplenty.
A dead-eyed and very deadpan Samuel L Jackson ups the jeopardy as a peculiar-gone-rogue who seeks Peregrine for nefarious reasons, and towards the end, Burton combines the circus freakery of the story with some jaw-dropping action, bringing skeletons to life à la Jason and the Argonauts in a walloping good-versus-evil smackdown.
Judi Dench is bizarrely squandered in a small role and O’Dowd’s well-meaning father is left hanging, but Burton fans will come away from this feeling utterly spoiled.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is in cinemas from Thursday 29 September