Word choice is very important to writers, so it’s no coincidence that author Ransom Riggs chose the word “peculiar” to describe the children in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, his 2011 book about people who have unique traits and talents. “Bizarre,” “freakish,” or “dangerous,” all could have worked, but Riggs selected the more innocuous “peculiar,” so it’s fitting that the new film adaptation of his book has several peculiar traits of its own.
In this case, peculiar is mostly a good thing – both for the characters and for the film. If the movie weren’t a bit unusual, it would just be an X-Men retread with fewer special effects and a bigger dose of Tuck Everlasting and Groundhog Day. But unlike Professor X’s mutants – sorry, his “gifted children” – Miss Peregrine’s peculiars aren’t battling for social acceptance. It doesn’t matter whether or not society accepts them, since they live in a continuous loop of the same day over and over again, and anything they teach the larger population would be wiped clean with the sunset.
That probably sounds confusing, and truthfully, it is. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children lives in a universe with complicated rules. The film takes the time needed to carefully explain them so viewers don’t get lost, though unfortunately it slows the film down significantly in the first half. Thankfully, my explanation can be pithier: the story begins with the mysterious death of Jake (Asa Butterfield)’s grandfather (Terence Stamp). Armed with some of his grandfather’s photos and letters, Jake goes to a remote area of Wales with his father (the well-intentioned but miscast Chris O’Dowd) in search of answers. There, he encounters a group of children who are peculiar in that they have unique traits and abilities. They’re also peculiar in that they don’t age as a result of living in a protective, continuous loop of the same day in September of 1940. As you likely expect, Jake gets involved, and a new timeline of events is set into action.
Devotees of the book – and there are many – will find that screenwriter Jane Goldman stays fairly close to the novel through most of the screenplay, aside from changing and trading some of the characteristics of the children. There’s a significant departure in the final act, to which diehard fans may object, but which I thought brought about a more satisfying conclusion than the book and certainly leads to a more seamless film experience. More broadly, the film and story are strong enough to appeal to those whose only familiarity with the books is seeing the unusual original cover art while browsing Barnes & Noble.
Much of the credit for that strength is due to Tim Burton’s judicious direction. It makes sense that Burton would take the reigns on the film given the story’s creepy warmth and beautiful oddities, but there’s a subtlety to Miss Peregrine that was missing in some of Burton’s other book adaptations. He has plenty of fun with special effects while also employing a restraint in his direction that suits the story. The world of Miss Peregrine is just odd enough to be unsettling, but there’s enough normalcy that the narrative stays grounded in the real, magic-free world in which a viewer lives. It’s tricky balance to keep one foot in the real world when telling a story that pulls the curtain back on an unexpected fantastical realm. With Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Burton successfully walks a line that he wasn’t interested in when making book adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
Despite some pacing issues and a fairly complex set-up, Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children does some new and interesting things with familiar themes. The more familiar one gets with this peculiar world, the more one comes to realize just how intentional Riggs was in his word choice. The primary definition of “peculiar” is odd or unusual, but the secondary definition is “belonging exclusively to.” In using the term, Riggs denotes both exclusion and exclusivity. In an entertainment landscape full of groups of ragtag outcasts, Riggs has developed a story with its own unique oddities, and Burton/Goldman carry that through to the film, tilting the normal world just enough to make the movie experience pleasingly peculiar.