Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, based on a peculiar book of the same name and directed by the embodiment of peculiarity himself, Tim Burton, is much better than you might have expected. Having seen the baffling publicity -- a white-eyed, Don-King-coiffed Samuel L. Jackson, what? -- you were likely to have considered this one yet another entry in an underwritten, overcrowded field of YA-adaptations that fail to distinguish themselves in any meaningful sense.
But not so!
Here, in a story constructed initially from archival photographs and then sculpted into a novel by writer Ransom Riggs, Burton has produced the closest thing to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone since that film's arrival in 2001. In the Burton pantheon, it's tonally much more akin to Big Fish than Alice in Wonderland.
Jacob Portman (Hugo's Asa Butterfield, of the Kodi Smit-McPhee-lanky-frame school) is a teenager in sunny Florida. When his grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp) is horrifically killed -- his body is found with eyes removed -- Jake is sent on a mission to uncover an unusual past. In flashbacks, we learn that Abraham was raised in a Welsh orphanage peopled by children of remarkable abilities. And if that feels like an amalgam or derivative of Hogwarts and Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, that's because it is.
On the Welsh Island in question, where Jacob has convinced his dad (Chris O'Dowd), via a psychiatrist (Allison Janney) to take him to convalesce (a bit of a first-world stretch), Jacob stumbles upon Miss Peregrine's School, and learns the mythology that defines the series: The eponymous headmistress (Eva Green) is a something called an Ymbrene, a "peculiar" (the word for mutant in this world) that can take the shape of a bird and, critically, can create 24-hour time loops in which persecuted peculiars, particularly children, can take refuge.
The plot against the peculiars is led by a mad scientist type named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his coterie of thugs and tentacled minions. After a ghastly eternal-youth experiment gone wrong, Barron and his crew transformed into beasts known as Hollowgasts (think Ringwraiths, Dementors, etc.), and, in a Guillermo del Toro twist, must consume the eyes of peculiars to maintain their human form. Children's eyes are especially valuable.
It's a bizarre story that transcends its zaniness with crisp storytelling and a largely fully-realized fantastical realm. Many of the YA products on the market are the result of speculative multi-book deals and are radically underdeveloped when they hit Barnes & Noble, and later the silver screen. This one, guided by Burton's tempered hand, and keyed in with at least two strong adult performances, is both a pleasant surprise and a return to form for YA adaptations. The most peculiar thing about this movie is that it works so well.