A film review by Craig J. Koban October 8, 2016

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN jj

2016, PG-13, 127 mins.

 

Eva Green as Miss Peregrine  /  Asa Butterfield as Jake  /  Ella Purnell as Emma Bloom  /  Enoch O'Conner as Finlay MacMillan  /  Olive Abroholos Elephanta as Lauren McCrostie  /  Samuel L. Jackson as Barron  /  Allison Janney as Dr. Golan  /  Aiden Flowers as 10-Year-Old Jacob  /  Terence Stamp as Abraham Portman  /  Judi Dench as Miss Avocet  /  Chris O'Dowd as Franklin Portman

Directed by Tim Burton, written by Jane Goldman, based on the book by Ransom Riggs

SCREENED IN
3D

Has the endearingly and idiosyncratically kooky and Gothic visual eccentricities of Tim Burton started to wane over the years?  

There's a definitive argument to made in the affirmative category.  It's been an awfully long time since a film from the iconic director has truly struck a chord with me, especially after witnessing a decade-plus of inordinately stylish, but most empty and middling affairs like DARK SHADOWS, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and his critically overrated SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.  Even honest attempts from him to work outside of his wheelhouse in films like the well intentioned, but problematic BIG EYES proved shallow and disappointing.   

I can certainly appreciate Burton's willingness at this point in his career to go return to well, so to speak, with a film that harnesses his unique talents and strengths,  Enter the needlessly complicated sounding MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (say that ten times without stopping), which, to be absolutely fair, contains material and an overall vibe that makes for a perfect marriage to Burton's penchant for the offbeat and macabre.  As a work of pure conceptual imagination, MISS PEREGRINE (I'll use that abbreviated title going forward) is an undeniable artistic triumph for the filmmaker and might be his most arresting looking film in years.  In adapting the best selling 2011 Ransom Rigg novel, MISS PEREGRINE has an unchecked level of ambitiousness that is commendable, not to mention that the manner the film segues between light heartedness and grotesque horror (something we don't see in abundance in most Young Adult themed films) makes it stand out apart from a crowded pack.  Sadly, though, MISS PEREGRINE emerges as yet another style over substance work from Burton, which displays far less affinity for concise storytelling than it does crafting a pretty looking storybook adventure. 

 

 

The film does contain a nifty premise and a wonderfully orchestrated first act that, unfortunately, it never finds ways to capitalize on during the later stages of the narrative.  The main protagonist is 16-year-old Jake (an uncharacteristically stiff and mannered Asa Butterfield) that lives the life of an ordinary high schooler...that is until he gets an impromptu emergency phone call from his sick grandfather (a terrific Terence Stamp) that informs him that evil forces are after him.  Of course, Jake sort of dismisses this as the ramblings of an elderly man battling dementia.  However, clues begin to surface that all of his bedtime stories that he told Jake about his experiences with monsters and "peculiars" in the 1940's may indeed be true, especially when it appears that something very otherworldly has factored into his sudden death.  This prompts Jake to make a journey to Wales (as per his grandfather's dying wishes) with his very concerned father (Chris O'Dowd) to seek out his grandfather's mystical friends from decades past.   

Jake does stumble onto something, alright.  Via a cave entombed time portal, Jake is whisked back to 1943 where he discovers a school for "gifted" and "peculiar" children with super human abilities that's presided over by the equally special Miss Peregrine (the always alluring Eva Green).  While she greets Jake with open arms, Miss Peregrine begins introducing him to the home's children (all of whom his grandfather described in great detail): There's Emma (Ella Purnell), who can manipulate air and - when not wearing weighted shoes - can float away like a balloon.  Then there's the red haired Olive (Lauren McCrostie) who can summon fire at will, and the sort of creepy Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) that can pull a full of Dr. Frankenstein and reanimate the dead.  One cute, but disturbing little girl has a monstrous mouth on the back of her head that she uses to eat with.  There are also twins that suspiciously have their faces covered by ominous sacks.  Miss Peregrine herself is not without powers - she can transform into a bird and, most importantly, warp time. 

That last part is important.  It appears that Miss Peregrine's home works on one big 24-hour time loop, which allows everyone that resides there to re-live the same 24-hour period ala GROUNDHOG DAY.  They can't make a pilgrimage to Jake's present day of 2016 without facing the horrendous ramifications of accelerated aging and most likely death.  Jake, of course, is able to traverse safely between both times, as his grandfather did before him during World War II, but both worlds are in for trouble when an evil peculiar named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) seeks out good peculiars to (yuck!) eat their eyeballs in order to return fully back to human form.  One of the large issues with MISS PEREGRINE is the fundamental lack of development in Jackson's antagonist, who's frequently referred to as a massive threat to all, but never emerges as one until the screenplay deems it necessary.  Jackson is clearly relishing in playing his baddie (who looks an awful like an older version of his Mr. Glass from UNBREAKABLE), but the screenplay rarely develops him as a multidimensional antagonist worthy of the actor's involvement. 

Another weak area of the film is in the casting of its central hero.  Asa Butterfield is a young performer that I've admired (see HUGO and ENDER'S GAME), but here he seems to have somehow been sapped of any semblance of charisma.  He's distractingly wooden and ill at ease in his performance, which makes for a rather tepid and disinteresting protagonist.  Thankfully, the other actors pull their weight and pick up his slack, especially Green, who makes for a rather riveting screen presence that seems to understand the type of film that she's occupying.  Terrence Stamp also provides for some necessary and instant gravitas that MISS PEREGRINE desperately requires at times as the sage-like figure in Jake's life that sets him off on his grand adventure. 

One of the biggest sins that MISS PEREGRINE commits - as far too many films do these days - is that it's far too expositional for its own good.  Clearly, there is a lot of ample mythology that the story has to cover here, but more often than not we have characters slavishly explaining what's happening in this bizarre universe instead of just showing us.  Not only does the film have to weave through convoluted explanations regarding its own inherent time loop logic, but then it has to expound upon Hollowgasts, Wights, Barron, the peculiars, and how everyone and everything seems unavoidably intertwined.  By the time the film reaches its boiling point (and painfully routine climatic third act) I was left frankly asking too many questions about the story's temporal cadence and how it was utilized by some characters.  At the very least, it gives Burton a joyous opportunity for a nice little homage to Ray Harryhausen in a sequence involving a battle between Jake and his friends versus a squadron of stop motion animated skeletons and tentacled giants. 

MISS PEREGRINE is not as hopeless of a loss as much as my review has let on thus far.  Burton, if anything, is incapable of making a dull looking effort, and the film's lack of a strong lead character and its murky and troubled scripting are compensated by his unfiltered imagination that he displays in conjuring up the exotically weird and eerie world of Ransom Rigg's literature (one scene in particular that shows Jake and Emma having a romantic swim to a sunken ship to get away from the world is indisputably gripping and wondrously staged).  The film's strikingly opulent visual palette still shows that Burton is in complete command of his artistic powers at marrying costumes, production design, art direction, and computer enhanced effects to give MISS PEREGRINE an authoritatively original aura that's uniquely its own.  That, and Burton doesn't soft pedal the inherent darkness of the material, which sometimes taps into some truly nightmarish imagery (this is not a film for young kids).  

There's no question that the Burton stylistic magic of yesteryear is on full display in MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, but his lack of narrative discipline that has tainted so much of his recent work is...yup...still regretfully here and accounted for.  

 

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