We were convinced Tim Burton was protesting too much. Never mind those assurances from the onetime “Batman” director that “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” wasn’t his contribution to the current superhero zeitgeist. The whole thing sounded too much like a copyright-skirting nod to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, of “X-Men” fame.
How wrong we were. “Miss Peregrine” proves to be a fantasy that generally favors throwback drama and mystery over contemporary fireworks, bringing to mind the melancholy anachronisms of “Benjamin Button” and the period-set creepiness of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Burton’s film doesn’t aim quite that high, but it’s a welcome variation on his familiar predilections — misfits, mondo-bizarro aesthetics, and ambassadors to the macabre. In fact, the movie bogs down only toward the finish, when it turns into a metahuman free-for-all.
Burton initially keeps the weirdness in check, offering a surprisingly straightforward intro to awkward Florida kid Jake (Asa Butterfield, bigger than we remember from “Hugo,” but still quietly appealing). Sure, Jake finds his addled grandpa (Terence Stamp, clearly enjoying himself) gruesomely slain in an apparent paranormal incident. But otherwise this half-plays like some unplugged indie: a young PTSD case shambles along, visits his therapist (Allison Janney), and persuades his underinvolved dad (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Grandpa’s old Welsh stomping ground for closure.
Or maybe to open a door, as it turns out there was truth to the bedtime stories that Stamp’s codger told about a magical children’s home. Soon Jake has peered behind the curtain to meet pipe-smoking, eccentrically accented shapeshifter Miss Peregrine (Burton troupe member Eva Green) and her charges. Judi Dench only drops in for a cuppa, but we get to know chronically levitating sweetheart Emma (Ella Purnell), human beehive Hugh (Milo Parker, “Mr. Holmes”) . . . the list goes on.
Ditto the particulars of the group’s complicated circumstance. For decades, they’ve hidden in a “time loop” circa 1943. They can’t grow up — there’s your melancholy — but they’re safe from prejudice and a rival faction of “peculiars” led by Samuel L. Jackson’s twisted Barron. Jackson’s mutant ocular appliances might be the freakiest since “Thriller,” but they’re not half as scary as the spindly, eyeball-noshing monsters in his evil crew. (We may not be sure of this one’s ideal audience, but we know it’s not little ones.)
Climactic action set pieces have never been Burton’s strength, so it’s gratifying to catch Harryhausen-inspired skeleton warriors and a wondrous sunken-ship scene among the late-game chaos. But it’s the peculiar bits that come before that make this such a nicely tailored fit for the pop-goth auteur.
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Jane Goldman, based on the novel by Ransom Riggs. Starring Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp, Samuel L. Jackson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 127 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril).