Style, for Tim Burton, isn’t a substitute for good storytelling, but an essential means of delivering it. And so with “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” — an engagingly oddball adaptation of Ransom Riggs’s 2011 bestseller about youngsters with X-Men-like powers who come under attack by malevolent entities — the opportunities for the “Alice in Wonderland” filmmaker to flex his particular brand of moviemaking muscle are manifold.
In a story involving time travel, scary monsters and a group of quirkily charismatic English orphans blessed (or cursed) with such fantastical gifts as one boy’s ability to control the colony of bees that live in his stomach, Burton is in his element. If any of these strange children are stand-ins for the director himself, it is Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), a dapper tyke who pops a special lens in front of his eyeball, like a jeweler’s loupe, and proceeds to project his dreams onto the wall for the delectation of his friends.
In the case of “Miss Peregrine” — a story that echoes Burton’s affinity for the grotesque, even the macabre — those dreams are more like nightmares.
Burton’s emphasis on visuals makes sense. Riggs’s book evolved from an original idea of the author’s to showcase a collection of vintage found photographs that he had collected from flea markets, featuring apparent levitation and other oddities. In “Miss Peregrine,” the levitating girl is Emma (Ella Purnell), an otherworldly child who welcomes the American teenager Jake (the equally otherworldly Asa Butterfield) into a parallel universe when he visits the small Welsh island where his grandfather (Terence Stamp) grew up, sent there by the dying man’s enigmatic instructions. Emma and Jake fall in love, naturally, as his own plot-critical peculiarities reveal themselves.
Called a “loop,” that parallel universe exists in a “Groundhog Day”-like wrinkle in time in which a single day — September 3, 1943, in this case — plays out over and over again, like a broken record.
The skip in the flow of the time-space continuum resets every 24 hours, just before a Nazi bomb falls on the children. It’s no miracle or accident. The titular Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who runs a small orphanage for Emma, Horace and several other preternaturally abled “Syndrigasti” (or, more colloquially, peculiars) is an Ymbryne, someone who can not only change into the form of a bird but also manipulate time. Loops, you see, are temporal hiding places from a group of disgruntled Syndrigasti led by the murderous Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson, chewing both scenery and dialogue with a set of frighteningly sharp prosthetic chompers). Barron and his minions — called Hollowgasts, and rendered in Burton’s trademark stop-motion, not slickly clinical CGI — harvest human eyeballs to eat.
Ew. The very idea of this — at once gruesome and darkly funny — is perfectly suited to Burton’s sensibility, which also reveals itself in the casting of Butterfield, who has the quality of a young, slightly less freaky Johnny Depp.
The director’s other signature is the theme of the outsider, which is articulated most strongly in the central image of the peculiar children (who resemble Marvel’s mutants, at times a bit too closely). Other echoes of fantasy franchises include, if only vaguely, the “Harry Potter” films.
There’s no denying the aptness of Burton as an interpreter of Riggs’s story, which has been intelligently adapted for the screen by writer Jane Goldman (who, tellingly, also worked on screenplays for two “X-Men” films). The relatable theme of the magical misfit may not be entirely original. But as brought to life by Burton, Riggs’s fictional vision of a world in which the nonconformist can flourish serves as both a self-portrait of the auteur and a “Wonderland”-like looking glass in which many in the audience will no doubt see a reflection of themselves.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense sequences of fantasy violence and peril. 122 minutes.