With Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton delivers his most winningly crafted fantasy film in years. The movie has lots of digital imagery, but little of the visual bombast of his overstuffed Alice in Wonderland. Burton does fabricate some outsize monsters—towering, tentacle-mouthed horrors called Hollowgasts—but for the most part he deploys CGI in the service of gorgeous scenes and memorable images. The movie is a bit overextended, but it's always great to look at.
The story, based on a young-adult novel by Ransom Riggs, charts the increasingly fantastical adventures of a Florida teenager named Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield, the star of Martin Scorsese's Hugo). In the Burton tradition, Jake is a misunderstood loner, mocked by schoolmates and treated as an afterthought by his parents. However, he has a tight bond with his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp). One night, after a mysterious attack on Abe's home, the dying old man tells his grandson to "go to the island…find the loop." Jake is puzzled, but not for long—Abe has left behind clues.
Jake persuades his father (Chris O'Dowd) to take him to the island, a place called Cairnholm, off the coast of Wales. There he finds an orphanage, a burned-out ruin that was hit by a bomb during the war and never reconstructed. On a second visit, however, he finds the remote mansion in pristine condition. He also discovers that the year is now 1943.
The orphanage is run by a pipe-smoking eccentric named Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who tends a small tribe of oddly gifted children—Peculiars. Among them are a boy who stores bees in his stomach, one girl with a mouth in the back of her head, another who's super-strong, and another with the ability to command plant life. There's also a young woman named Fiona (Georgia Pemberton), who can create fire with a touch of her hands (she wears black gloves the prevent accidental ignitions). And there's a weightless teen named Emma, who has to wear lead boots to prevent her from drifting off into the sky.
Jake is attracted to this girl, and in one interlude we see Emma, tethered by a rope held in Jake's hands, remove her lead boots and float up into the air to return a fallen baby squirrel to its treetop nest. Burton is at his best here, investing the scene with an emotional glow that's all his own.
Miss Peregrine's orphanage exists in the loop of which Jake's grandfather spoke. The loop is 24 hours long, and each day when a German plane flies overhead to drop the bomb that destroyed the building in 1943, Miss Peregrine magically rewinds the day back to its beginning. Maintaining the kids' sheltered life at the orphanage requires that she do this over and over, forever.
Miss Peregrine is also a Peculiar, of course: she can transform at will into a peregrine falcon. And she has a black-hearted enemy—a renegade Peculiar named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson with a mouthful of sharky teeth), who has arrived in Blackpool, England, with a team of ferocious Hollowgasts disguised in human forms. They'll soon be arriving in Cairnholm, it seems—unless someone can stop them.
Fortunately, Emma has access to a cruise ship; unfortunately, it's located at the bottom of the ocean. In a sequence of striking virtuosity, we see Emma and Jake, deep underwater, swimming through the ship, with Jake breathing inside a bubble of air Emma has positioned around his head. Then, in an impressive display of Peculiar lungpower, Emma blows all of the water out of the ship so it can set off for Blackpool for a confrontation with Barron and his evil henchmen. Once the kids arrive there, Burton stages a long, complex battle, which allows him to toss off a witty skeleton fight in homage to his late friend, the special-effects master Ray Harryhausen.
Ransom Riggs's story has obvious elements of the X-Men movies (Burton's screenwriter, Jane Goldman, worked on two of those), and it's an ideal playground for the director's imaginative flights. The Peculiar kids are all stalwart, and often funny; and as their leader, Eva Green, with her elaborate blue-tinged hair and subtly strange clothing, is a sleek, captivating presence. It's too bad the movie never quite sweeps us up—it's a little slow in spots, and there's an awful lot of exposition packed in, some of it confusing. But we do get to see a great filmmaker working once again at (or pretty near) the top of his form. And maybe that's enough.