The inherent ability of the ordinary to turn, without warning, into the extraordinary and take everything else along with it in a status quo-unsettling melee, sits at the centre of a great many stories, especially those in the fantasy and young adult genres.
Inherent in these sorts of narratives is the idea that just beyond our rather limited perception sits a world or worlds that defy everything we have known about reality up to that point.
Though a well-used trope of storytelling, it makes for gripping, compelling drama when in the right hands, and hands do not come more adroit than those of Tim Burton who has shown a real gift for combining the bizarre & the unusual with the comfortingly heartwarming and meaningful.
He is at his exemplary best in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, based on the 2011 book by Ransom Briggs, which offers a wholly original take on a great many well-worn, close-to-expiry date tropes of fantasy storytelling.
In no particular order we have the young hero Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) who journeys to a remote island off the coast of Wales after a family tragedy to find some answers and hopefully closure, his detached dad (Chris O’Dowd), his devoted grandfather (Terence Stamp in fine form) who knows things, many of which he has imparted to Jake through stories in his childhood, and a bombed-out manor house that seems to be way more populated than it should be.
Sensing that there is more to the house than meets the eye, Jake finds himself meeting the residents of the home, who exist not in 2016 but in a time loop that runs the course of 3 September 1943 over and over again, providing a supposedly safe haven for the “peculiar” children who live there, and their guardian, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who possesses the ability to turn into a bird at whim.
Somewhat like the mutants of the X-Men universe, but also a world apart, the Peculiars run the gamut of sweetly odd with a boy internally made of bees (Hugh – Milo Parker), Emma (Ella Purnell), an aerokinetic teenager who controls air to spectacular effect, a super strong young girl (Bronwyn – Pixie Davies), Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) who can raise the dead and the inanimate who act only on his command and even an invisible boy Millard (Cameron King), who has a penchant for going nude much of the time, something of which Miss Peregrine, a loving but stern disciplinarian most certainly does not approve.
Like any innocent young man drawn into a strange world he never thought existed, Jake is first frightened, then bewildered then intrigued, assured by an increasing sense that he has found a home where he least expected it.
Of course, no idyll is ever truly safe in a fantasy story of this kind and Jake soon finds himself challenged in a thousand different ways to realise his destiny and save the Peculiars and their guardians from the Hollows, Peculiars gone monstrously wrong who sort immortality but lost their humanity instead.
Led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), in sparkling, quip-dropping form who steals pretty much every scene he’s in – if you’re going to be the bad guy, at least make it memorable seems to be the attitude – they spend their lives hunting down Peculiars and stealing their eyes in an attempt to regain some semblance of forfeited humanity.
But while the form returns, the soul remains poisoned and so Jake finds himself in a world he has never conceived of fighting for the oddest people he has ever met, and yet in Burton’s hands, the most human of any of the people in the film, against a foe with cold bloodthirsty intent.
On paper at least, it reads like the sort of story you have seen (or read) many times over.
But there is something engagingly original about Riggs’ storyline and Burton’s evocative cinematic retelling that elevates it far above many of its genre compatriots.
Much of this can be slated home to Burton’s keen visual eye which drops you into a fully-formed, luxuriously-expansive world which feels every bit as natural and normal as our own on its own terms, with people who though different – Claire (Raffiella Chapman) has a jaw full of large serated teeth at the back of her head for instance – simply want to be loved, accepted and left in peace, like anyone else.
It’s this combination of the fantastical and the all-too-human that provides Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children with much of its appeal, investing Jake’s titanic, and only-occasionally-horrific but still tense battle with the required emotional gravitas to make it matter.
There is a lush connectivity to the whole film, with every single moment making absolute sense on its own, but beautifully and seamlessly leading to the next, lending the film a gorgeous feeling of being a world wholly unto itself.
It is inextricably linked to our own of course, and the fight scene at Blackpool Pier more than underlines that as the Peculiars’ reality and our own come together, but as is true of so much of the world inhabited by Miss Peregrine’s charges, it also stands alone, prompting a quandary for Jake about which reality he is most fully a part.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children may look dark and forbidding in the trailer, and in certain aspects it most certainly is, but at its heart, it is about belonging, of being accepted without qualifications for who you are, themes which run through much of Burton’s work.
He has long championed the unusual, the strange and the downright bizarre as something not to be feared but valued as another facet of the reality we all inhabit, and this is never more on display than in this enchanting, richly imaginative, visually and narratively immersive film which champions the underdog and the outcast and argues, quite successfully, that they are every bit as worthy of love, care and a trouble-free life as everyone else.
It proves this point emphatically over and over, rewarding us with one of the most complete, exquisitely-well rendered, emotionally evocative films of its type to come along in some time, so beautifully and flawlessly put together with characters you can’t help but become invested in, that you might be tempted, like Jake, to reconsider whether the ordinary reality you inhabit is really the one you want, and need, to call home.