Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Director: Tim Burton / Screenplay: Jane Goldman (from novel by Ransom Riggs) / Editing: Chris Lebenzon / DP: Bruno Delbonnel / Music: Michael Higham & Matthew Margeson
Cast: Eva Green / Asa Butterfield / Samuel L. Jackson / Judi Dench / Rupert Everett / Allison Janney / Chris O’Dowd / Terence Stamp / Ella Purnell / Lauren McCrostie / Milo Parker / Kim Dickens / O-lan Jones
Keeping Everyone in the Loop…
Consider Tim Burton’s filmography for long enough and, like any good Rorsach image, a pattern emerges. His films generally feature infantilised adults trying to make sense of a reality that Burton has twisted for their discomfort and our amusement. From the earliest breakout-hit Beetlejuice (1988) in which Michael Keaton & Geena Davis came to terms with Being Dead, through a couple of Batmans (convince me that Bruce Wayne isn’t a discomfited ManChild) a leaden Planet of the Apes (2001) and a Fin de Siécle take on Alice in Wonderland (2010) and more, he’s been nothing if not consistent in his adoration of a certain Gothic milieu. Little wonder that he ended-up marrying Helene Bonham-Carter, though leafy Hampstead is a far cry from the Carpathians…
Such consistency of tone is helped, of course, by a prodigious and dark imagination, which manifests through doodles & sketches with a lucidity that must be both intimidating and, frankly, unapproachable for young production artists assigned to a Burton picture. Talk about about peer-pressure…
Whilst I’m not questioning Burton’s visual genius (taken as read, at this point), I wonder if he ever feels stifled at raking-over the same themes with EVERY picture? It’s as though he’s boxed himself-in with a proven formula, leaving no opportunity for growth or real experimentation; content to rearrange the furniture for each picture, rather than move house and explore new geography.
Worryingly, who can stop him? Over the decades, his residuals must’ve ensured he needn’t work again, yet every few years a ‘new’ Tim Burton picture appears, looking little different from its immediate predecessor. I’d imagine every hardcore fan will be weary by now; there’s only so much Neu-Gothik noodling one can take, before checking-out for good.
Put it this way: the world awaits Burton’s first thriller; could be a crapola or a new Citizen Kane, but until he breaks out of the playpen and has a go, we’ll forever be wondering. Which brings us, somewhat dispiritingly, to Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children…
In-keeping with most teen fantasy pictures made these days, it was originally a YA novel. This one was written by Ransom Riggs; an author who – with a name like that – was born to write a Burton treatment, though Fate had him write a novel first. The gig to adapt, fell into the lap of fellow Hampstead resident Jane Goldman. An accomplished screenwriter, best known for her book adaptations, I gather she & Burton both felt Riggs’ work, whilst cinematic in certain ideas, needed ‘beefing-up’ for the screen, which necessitated the tacking-on of a Third Act…
It begins with a wide-eyed, awkwardly-accented Asa Butterfield as Jake: a young man humiliated by school ‘friends’, whilst working part-time in a supermarket. It’s a simple scene that exists to do one thing: show us that Jake’s averse to confrontation and, by extension, that he’ll be the quiet anti-hero of the film. Burton’s quick off the mark here, wasting little time in getting Jake over to his Grandfather’s place: an anonymous bungalow amidst ‘The Waves’ – a Floridian retirement estate. Driven there by his colleague Shelley (O-lan Jones), they soon find Grandad Abe, flat on his back, out in the boonies beyond a fence busted by something BIG that, apparently, only Jake can see. Terence Stamp is great as Abe: a confident figure, far tougher than his own, small-minded son Frank (Jake’s dad) can fathom. All would be well, if it weren’t for the fact that Abe’s eyes are missing. Before he passes, all he can say to Jake, is some cryptic mumbo-jumbo about ‘going to the island’ where ‘the bird can explain’.
Cue: a meeting with a shrink at Dad Frank’s urging; his son’s spouting nonsense about visiting an island off the Welsh coast, from where a postcard was sent to Abe.
Still with me? Dr Golan (the ever-reliable Allison Janney) suggests it might be good for Jake to go there and ‘work it out of his system’ and this he does, along with Frank; an unhappy, thankless role that offers no chance for Chris O’Dowd to flex his funny-bone. So bleak is Frank’s outlook, on both his competence as a father as well as someone possessed of a creative spark that, when confronted by someone apparently more talented as a photographer (Rupert Everett as the most improbable twitcher I think I’ve ever seen) Frank’s content to settle for a liquid lunch at the pub and an afternoon nap.
He’s a petulant, nay infantilised adult. I rest my case.
Jake, now free of his drag-anchor of a Dad, duly finds the grand home of which Abe was a one-time resident; unoccupied since receiving a direct hit from a German Luftwaffe bomber on September 3rd, 1943. Not only are its scorched & exposed rooms remarkably intact & unmarked by seventy years exposed to the elements, but Riggs’ novel is already losing me on practical grounds.
Ann, my other half, is keen to remind me that in fantasy films such as this, I ought to suspend disbelief: and I TRY. I really do, but some are worse offenders that others and Miss-P is shaping up to be among the very worse, Put it this way: it’s a long story, but I happen to know, that while German bombers of the type shown might have been capable of reaching an island off Wales’ Atlantic coast, they lacked the range to return to Occupied France; this was long before air-to-air refuelling had been perfected. Sadly, this won’t be the last time, that the film’s internal logic frayed at the edges…
I digress. Amidst the artfully-distressed ‘ruins’, Jake spots a few residents of the home and, believing them to be ghosts, he runs back to the pub to tell Frank: except NOW, he’s in the same ‘time-loop’ as these mysterious kids. He’s rescued from an arbitrary pub-brawl, plonked onto a pony & trap and driven back to the house, in the company of his new companions.
There, he’s met by the redoubtable Eva Green as Miss Peregrine. Green is perfect casting here, with her severe-yet-alluring pout, quifftastic hairdo and pipe, that she contentedly puffs at throughout the piece. As we follow Miss-P’s tour of the home and its assorted gang of ‘Peculiars’, she explains the set-up: that Peculiars have a ‘recessive gene carried through successive bloodlines’, that endow their recipients with a selection of
novel peculiar powers, ranging from being lighter-than-air and needing lead boots in which to walk about in, or having the strength of ten men despite being just five years old.
Wow. It’s taken us a while to get here. The script has had to do a lot of heavy lifting to set this up, yet it all passes in mere blinks. Even the scene where Miss-P stops the Luftwaffe’s bomb from striking, is over before we’ve had time to take in the spectacle.
Hang-on! I thought the house took a direct hit?
It did. In our timeline. Miss Peregrine has two peculiarities. First, she has the ability to change into, wait for it…
No, not a pigeon, but a Falcon of the genus Falco Peregrinus.
superpower peculiarity, is the ability to create a ‘bubble’ in-time, lasting for twenty-four hours. As long as she resets it at the correct moment (i.e. a slowed-down instance before the bomb strikes) she can reverse time and have the kids live the same day over-and-over. For seventy-plus years. Having escaped its time-slowing protection, Abe had a family and died an old man, but here are all his friends, greeting Jake like some reincarnation that isn’t weird at all…
All this was, I confess, cause for another sigh, for it’s nothing new. I mean, the time-mechanic has been pilfered from Groundhog Day (1993) and the notion of a remote house, filled with gifted kids? X-Men is an obvious analogy, so instead, let’s consider The Sound of Music (1965). No, really. Think about it: a bunch of kids of varying ages (trawled from what seems the same drama school), kept cloistered in a grand country house, away from the outside world? Along comes a bright-eyed outsider to shake things up and give assistance in the face of Nazi oppression? Led to safety across formidable natural barriers? Yep. All present & correct, but where Maria gets the Von Trapp clan into Switzerland, Jake has to get them to a location chosen by Burton & Goldman, who both express a strange attraction to its faded Gothic splendour.
Yep. I’m talking about, err, Blackpool.
Not only that, but they travel to that pearl of the North-West riviera in a wrecked ocean liner!
That’s been sitting on the seabed for thirty years!
But which Emma (Ella Purnell) raises to the surface, on-account of her prodigious wind.
Sorry. Ability to make wind…
Sounds even worse. Another girl, Olive (flame-haired Lauren McCrostie) gets it moving, thanks to her peculiarity: the ability to relight its sodden boilers with a mere touch.
Oh, and did I mention that they’re doing this at night?
Inexplicably unseen by the combined might of the Western Allies, they arrive at an unguarded Blackpool pier in their barnacle-encrusted gin-palace and proceed to enter another time-loop centred in the pier’s mothballed ‘Ghost-Train’ ride – emerging into its 2016 incarnation. It’s Bedknobs & Broomsticks but without the charm…
Then follows a long-awaited, mostly consequence-free showdown with the ‘Hollows’: a bunch of older Peculiars who got greedy for eternal life and ended-up becoming monsters in the process; eating eyeballs harvested from other Peculiars is the only cure. Ah, Abe: NOW it becomes clear…
This final confrontation ends in a happy-slappy, CGI-heavy end-of-the-pier show that’s so dumb, it looks like it was written by Goldman over breakfast, rehearsed over lunch and shot before everyone wrapped for dinner.
Marshalled by the 1st AD, kids are running towards camera, yet there’s another bunch at the left of shot, who’re still enjoying the carousel, oblivious! There are police too, but no sooner do we see them ‘swabbing’ traces of the Hollow’s blood, than they disappear moments later. I know it’s a fantasy. I KNOW it’s idealised. Impressionistic. Broad-brush film-making & story-telling. I know all of this, but I think the reason why I’m struggling with such casual inconsistency, is that Burton’s film is set in THIS world, where my brain expects a certain amount of real-world rulesets to apply. If this were an original creation, i.e. Wonderland, anything would go.
But it’s not. We live in an era where the ‘official’ response would be more intrusive & pervasive. When a film-maker doesn’t apply that same logic, then the world-vision they want us to invest in, ceases to be credible.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Samuel L. Jackson as the villain, Barron, in a Don King fright-wig and white contacts, that make his eyes bulge like a Chameleon’s. Don’t get me wrong: he looks impressive, but he’s on-screen for a fraction of the movie’s interminable two-hour running time, which is more than can be said for poor Judi Dench as Miss Avocet, who’s only meaty scene is ‘pulled from under her’. This is stunt casting of the first-rank however, and kudos to Burton for having persuaded Dench to sign-on in the first place.
Problems? Oh, yes. Aside from the film’s tattered logic (I would’ve liked to explore the threads linking the many-Miss’s), the score is muddied, as individual motifs collide; there being too many strands to single-out for repetition. Characters are introduced then dispensed with arbitrarily. Kim Dickens gets one brief scene as Jake’s Mom before disappearing: Goldman needn’t have bothered. Likewise, in the present day, we encounter Oggy – the wheelchair-bound father of the pub landlord who ends-up losing his eyes: WHY? He was never introduced as a Peculiar… Then there’s Frank himself, who gets one last scene on the beach with Jake and is never seen again. Jake buggers off to Blackpool and he doesn’t care? Or is Goldman playing fast & loose here, to streamline a Third Act that was gratuitously bolted-on in the first place? (the answer’s probably Yes).
The few high-points for me, was an on-point Eva Green who’s presence and character saves Burton’s picture. The production design was excellent (as expected), along with wardrobe by Colleen Attwood and photography by Bruno Delbonnel (DP on Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and the inimitable Amelie (2001). Oh, and a stop-motion scrap between scratch-built toys, that’s a homage to his own Edward Scissorhands & the original Toy Story (1995). Lastly, amidst the CGI-smothered ‘climactic’ battle, there’s also a neat homage to Ray Harryhausen’s work on Jason and the Argonauts (1963) which is worth catching. Yet considering what these combined talents & high-points are up against, ‘tis truly ‘Pearls before Swine’.
For at the heart of this puzzling film, is Tim Burton himself. At the beginning of his directing career, one got the sense that he was laying it all out for bedazzled fans to savour & interpret any which way. He might not have been the greatest all-round film-maker, but he was certainly a gifted & individual stylist and proponent of a consistent ‘look & feel’, injecting his pictures with just enough ‘Gothic catnip’ to keep everyone happy (i.e. the fans and, by extension, the Studio paying the bills).
Unfortunately, successive films have brought larger budgets that, in-turn, have only encouraged him to embrace ever-reductive themes. One day, they’ll find their natural terminus when he remakes Beetlejuice for lack of anything new to say.
What’s that sound? Could it be the wheel turning full-circle?
I had to masquerade as a psychiatrist for three weeks! In Florida! Have you ever been to Florida?