‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ Review | Tim Burton’s Refugee All-Stars
You can’t hide mature ideas under a family-friendly genre any more than you can hide an elephant under a doily. Tim Burton’s latest may look and sound just like another YA fantasy film but it’s as potent an allegory for our contemporary (and age-old) refugee crisis as one could have reasonably hoped for.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the story of a young man named Jake (Asa Butterfield), who believes his grandfather’s stories of honest-to-goodness monsters living in Eastern Europe until he’s laughed at for accepting a metaphor instead of the complex realities of history. Years later, his grandfather (Terrence Stamp) is found dead under mysterious circumstances, and Jake is tortured by the idea that perhaps those tales of political refugees, each of them brimming with superhuman potential and needing protection from monsters, were actually real all along, even though his parents and the rest of society seem too distracted by apathy or self-interest to take them seriously.
So, Jake and his father (Chris O’Dowd) travel to a small Island off the coast of the United Kingdom, where his father intends to work on a book but spends most of his time watching TV instead. Meanwhile, Jake actually researches the horrors of the past and discovers that his grandfather’s many “peculiar” friends – with superpowers that range from the benign to the grotesque – are real, and that they have been hiding out in a “loop” that keeps them squirreled away from the real world but safe from attack by vicious predators who want to eat their eyes. The monsters and their victims were real all along, the metaphors were always honest.
As a straightforward fantasy tale, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children waffles between the standard and the unusually fanciful. Tim Burton may not be working with the most distinctive plot of his career but he seems genuinely pleased to bring this bizarre imagery to life, of young women filling sunken ships with air from her lungs, and teenaged boys shoving severed hearts (never mind where they got them) into clockwork playthings just to watch them fight to the death. The superficial qualities are a treasure to behold, even while the story is largely confined to vague mystery, overlong exposition and eventually a protracted, climactic battle.
But Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children works beyond the feeble limitations of genre, using the familiar YA trappings to craft a more pointed allegory for social consciousness. The responsibility for taking care of oppressed political refugees, outwardly “different” but inherently human, seems to have skipped a generation. Most of the adults in Burton’s film don’t want to acknowledge that the peculiar children of the title even exist, writing off their plight as exaggerated fantasy. The other adults are actively exploiting the tragedy of these wonderful but oppressed kids for their own personal and villainous gain; that, or they are of an older generation, the so-called “greatest” generation, who earned that title by accepting their responsibilities for others willingly.
Caught in between are a young generation of sensitive people who really could sit out the turmoil if they wanted to, but who nevertheless feel compelled out of common decency to protect those who need protecting. Because if you can see the evil in the world then you have a responsibility to do something about it. Tim Burton’s film, based on the novel by Ransom Riggs and adapted by Jane Goldman, illustrates these relevant and intensely dramatic struggles with visual flourish and honest-to-goodness heroism. The young cast is largely remarkable, and the adults are either amusingly blasé (on purpose) or they have profoundly big personalities. The people who change the world, or at least are willing to try, are more interesting than the people who just watch game shows, according to Miss Peregrine. It’s hard to argue the fundamental point.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children may be too rigidly confined to the strictures of its genre to feel genuinely important or revolutionary, but it certainly is peculiar. It’s an impressive and aspirational fantasy film for children and an entertaining, intelligent allusion for adults. Tim Burton has crafted a winning piece of entertainment out of big ideas and undeniably decent morality, and it’s well worth taking in.
Top Photo: 20th Century Fox
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.