The movies have long made room for phantasmagoric visionaries, the strange ones, the different ones, who like to peek under rocks (or peel back the skin) to peer at what squirms beneath. Fitting their deliriums into bright, shiny, commercially palatable vehicles can be difficult, asTim Burton’s career attests. Time and again, Mr. Burton has tried to smooth down his singular art, rather like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters sawing off a bit of her foot to squeeze into a happily-ever-after slipper. Mr. Burton should never hack off his strange bits; they can be glorious.
Ah, but he slips beautifully into his latest, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Based on the book of the same title in the young-adult series by Ransom Riggs, it follows the curious and curiouser adventures of Jake (Asa Butterfield), a Florida adolescent who’s begun to wither in all that tedious sunshine. The only beguiling shadow in an otherwise terrifyingly pastel life is his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp). Raconteur or fabulist, Abe likes to amble down a twisting memory lane, telling tales about the monsters he fought in the war or the children’s home in Wales where bees buzzed in a boy’s head and a girl named Emma (Ella Purnell) floated as light as a leaf on the wind.
This is all nonsense except that it’s not, though, you know, all in good time. First, Mr. Burton has to wind up the story and dispense with the usual preliminaries, the introductions and scene-setting, which he manages nicely. Some of this is dreary (the parents), some less so, particularly the skipping between past and present — a foreshadowing of later time traveling — which begins with a very young Jake listening to Abe in wonderment and ends with Jake as a squirmy, awkward teenager (like a super-abridged take on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”). And while Mr. Stamp seems eccentrically cast, his coolness works here because distance invariably draws you in closer.
It takes a while for Mr. Burton to get his kink on. Although he has some fun setting up Jake’s juvenile detention (i.e., life), the story begins to sag almost before it’s begun, despite the time-skipping and peekaboo at the mysteries to come. There’s a brief, amusing party scene at Jake’s house that suggests who he — and Mr. Burton — believe are the real monsters. But the movie also needlessly dawdles when it climbs on a high horse as Jake, after delivering a school presentation on his grandfather, is mocked and cruelly told that Abe lies. As if anyone, especially anyone watching a Hollywood movie, needed reminding that some people will always try to snuff out creativity.
Eventually, after the parts are snapped into place and well-oiled, Jake and his rather more reluctant father, Frank (a tamped-down Chris O’Dowd), arrive in Wales, chasing down Abe’s legacy and stories. While his father dithers and drinks, Jake goes down the rabbit hole and lands in a time loop where Miss Peregrine (a delightful Eva Green), welcomes him to 1943 with mad eyes and a Sherlock-sized pipe that she likes to clench between her pretty teeth. And we’re off, having finally arrived in an otherworldly fantasy that’s been etched with meticulous loveliness, from the meringue peaks of Miss Peregrine’s black-and-blue hair to the vaguely vaginal apertures in her jacket sleeves.
Miss Peregrine’s home — its inhabitants, chambers and time-stuttering enigmas — turns out to be a delightful cabinet of curiosities, those wonder rooms in which (once upon a time before Instagram) collectors stashed marvels like body parts, scientific instruments, odds and ends. Movies are kind of wonder rooms, too, though much depends on the collector. Mr. Burton, whose artistry is at times most evident in its filigree, can be a great collector when given the right box to fill, as is the case here. He revels in the story’s icky, freaky stuff; he’s right at home, which may be why he seems liberated by its labyrinthine turns and why you don’t care if you get a little lost in them.
Once Jake starts hanging out with his new crew, a charming sideshow — the girl with the gobbling mouth in the back of her head, the boy with prophetic gifts — he proves to be somewhat of a dullard. (The children are ideally cast, even if one is playing an invisible boy and two others are obscured by delectably creepy masks.) This isn’t Mr. Butterfield’s fault, just the fate of the hero who has to serve as the intermediary between the world of the spectator and the world on the other side of the looking glass. With his lanky limbs as well as his dark hair and clothes, Mr. Butterfield can’t help but bring to mind Mr. Burton, who of course plays the same role for us.
The story gets awfully busy — you may get lost in 1943 or perhaps closer to the present — but it scarcely matters. Mr. Burton’s attention to detail and to the ebb and flow of tone (scary, funny, eerie), as well as his sensitive, gentle work particularly with the child actors, make each new turn another occasion for unfettered imagination. As time loops and eyeballs pop and Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a villain and then Judi Dench drops in for a while, the movie holds you tight with one after another marvelous, horrible, indelible vision. Here, women turn into birds and a boy holds a rope tied to the waist of a girl who, in turn, floats above him like a balloon, a thought and a dream.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). For once, the rating makes sense given that there are scenes, including with eyeballs, that may be too intense for young children. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes.