The name is really a mouthful.
Peregrine is composed of many small pieces of visual and textural brilliance owing to Burton’s very developed sense of the uncanny, but ultimately, when seen as a whole, it doesn’t quite stand out from its crop. It also embodies a kind of escapist, Peter-Pan mentality that, frankly, sends an unsalutary message to its viewers.
Peregrine is a classic two-worlds fantasy story – the modern, prosaic world, and a secret world of people with strange powers owing to a recessive peculiar gene – Peculiars. Many Peculiar children live changeless existences in time-loops created by special Peculiars known as Ymbrynes who can turn into birds and act as guardians for the children. Forever. Yeah, a bit creepy and Peter Pan-esque, but it certainly fits in with the Burtonesque branding.
Our teenaged protagonist, Jacob, lives a normal, if somewhat muted life in Floridan suburbia, with only his grandfather’s wild stories of his youth spent with his peculiar friends as a source of escapism. Of course, like everyone else, he dismisses these stories as fantasies, but after he witnesses his grandfather being killed by a monstrous being that slips into the shadows, he begins his induction into a new reality.
Peregrine‘s premise is a great fit for Tim Burton’s specific visual style, which, I think, is about accentuating the uncanny by juxtaposing the banal with the discomfiting. The Peculiar world isn’t the scintillating fantasy of the earlier Harry Potter books – it’s a world of persecuted people, forced to re-live the same day of their lives over and over again as children, under the pretext that they are being protected from the prejudices of the outside world. The children’s peculiarities run the gamut from vanilla superpowers like invisibility or pyrokinetics, to uncanny things like the ability to create and control puppets by inserting the hearts of once-living things into them. Peculiarity is amoral and capricious in a way that is much more visceral than what is portrayed in Harry Potter or even the X-men comics.
This uncanniness gives the viewer pause at every turn, because it doesn’t fit into the well-worn patterns of two-worlds stories where the fantasy world is, at least at first touch, magical and inviting (or nightmarish and apocalyptic). Peregrine straddles the middle in many ways. When Jacob first meets them, they seem out of joint with the world, anachronisms – mysterious children wearing 1940s era clothes, who we later on learn have been living the same day over again for seventy years. Miss Peregrine, played by Eva Green, is a formidable combination of maternal guardian and authoritarian dictator, leading her charges on an isolationist existence against the rest of the world. Jacob feels a sense of alienation from the Peculiar world precisely because he, initially, doesn’t quite fit into that uncanny environment.
The amorality of the peculiar world is made more binary in relation to the antagonists – a cabal of Peculiars led by the manically frizzly and sinisterly voluble Dr Barrow (Samuel L Jackson in another flamboyantly villainous role ). Wights are Peculiars who underwent an experiment to gain immortality but who instead turn into monsters called hollowgasts, and need to subsist on a diet of eyeballs to maintain their human form. Guess what they like to do to Ymbryne orphanages?
The conflict with these wights casts the story into a more traditional binary mold of good guys and bad, which is fine, especially because the wights make genuinely frightening villains. There’s the fact that hollowgasts kill their victims by using prehensile tongues to pluck their eyes out, of course. But Samuel Jackson’s Dr Barron infuses his character a kind of self-aware pleasure in what he’s doing that really brings out the enormity of his actions.
It’s a slight shame, then, that the elements of this world – the morally grey and uncanny one of the Peculiars and the creatively evil wights – aren’t really put together in a way that suggests a complete or cohesive world or story. When is Peculiar civilisation situated in the timeline? Is Mr Barron a creature of the past or present? There’s also a massive grandfather paradox (in the literal sense of the term) that I don’t really understand, but it can be overlooked in the context of this being a 2 hour film with not enough time for extended expositions. But the timey-wimey convolutedness of the plot with insufficient explanations for some of its parts kind of left the film wanting a little in the way of closure and a sense of internal consistency.
But I also think that the other thing that threw me off was really also about the core of the film, which is Jacob’s character arc. Ostensibly, the film portrays Jacob as an outsider in his own society who finds a group of outsiders and slowly comes to identify with them. In the film, Jacob’s emotional connection to that group is exemplified by his relationship with one of the Peculiars, Emily Bloom. But the relationship feels a little contrived and also quite uncanny (since she is, mentally over 70 and was also involved with Jacob’s grandfather). And at the end of everything, Jacob just up and leaves school and his (admittedly dreary) household and rejoins the Peculiars, presumably to find a timeloop to live the same day of his live again and again on infinite repeat. Because the world of the Peculiars is so cloistered and seemingly limited, it doesn’t feel like an escapist fantasy should – that the character is blossoming into their own as a member of that other world, like Harry Potter did in the wizarding community – but more of a regression or stasis – like Wendy going back to Neverland. It represents – in a few words – a form of escapist fantasy that feels limiting, rather than freeing.
I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 hollowgast-killing crossbows