IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 127 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
16 year old Jacob doesn’t seem to fit in. He receives a note from his grandfather which makes little sense and he goes to visit him, only to find him dead with his eyes removed and near a hideous monster. Nobody believes him, but Jacob remembers endless childhood evenings where his grandfather would tell him stories of a youth spent with fantastically gifted children. He convinces his dad to take him to a small island off the coast of Wales where these kids, and their guardian Miss Peregrine, are supposed to have lived, but the house is now deserted and dilapidated. He does, though, find that he can travel back in time to the house to September 3rd, 1943, and meet its inhabitants. They’ve been living inside of a day for over seventy years, because every night Miss Peregrine rewinds time to prevent them being killed by a German bomb….
Due to computer problems at the time, I ddin’t get around to reviewing Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. It wasn’t very well received by either critics or the public, but I found it to be an interesting attempt by Burton to do something different, even if it didn’t quite have the conviction that a film about art made by a man who himself was an artist and begun his career as one should have had. Obviously Burton felt it necessary to return to more tried and tested grounds, and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children seems almost tailor made for Burton’s style and interests, in particular his preoccupation with unusual outsider characters. It’s a film that, if Burton had made it earlier on in his career, he would have totally knocked it out of the park. Unfortunately, he’s made it in his rather spottier later career, so the result is mostly, though not entirely, lacking in that distinctive Burton touch that first made him a world famous filmmaker with a unique vision and outlook, a filmmaker whose work often seemed highly personal yet despite its oddness often had popular success. In fact, there were times I was thinking to myself that it could have almost been directed by anyone.
Still, if taken on its own, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is quite an enjoyable family flick, if one that is a rather unwieldy merging of elements from X-Men, Harry Potter, Groundhog Day and others. One is able to tick off all the borrowings while still enjoying the film. Apparently it’s made some significant changes from the novel by Ransom Riggs, notably swapping over the powers of two of the characters, beefing up the evil Mr. Barron from being a minor presence to the main villain, and adding things from the three book sequels. It also feels less of a story which can be continued, something possibly done at the behest of Burton who has said he’s not interested in filming any follow-ups, though going by how big the film’s opening weekend is, I reckon that sequels will probably be made with or without Burton. And that’s something which I wouldn’t mind. Despite its sometimes messy storytelling from Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman, some poor creative decisions and a director who seems to have lost a lot of his drive and enthusiasm, I did rather find the film to be a mostly entertaining work. It’s usually interesting, it’s storyline does often compel, and it’s still sometimes nicely unusual, if not really as odd as it should be aside from a few choice moments where the Burton who once gave us the artiest, weirdest Holllywood superhero flick of all time seems like he’s still trying to rear his head but puts it down again very quickly.
The early section, despite having three toilet jokes in the space of about 15 minutes, is really quite dark in tone and I wondered if even the 12A rating was too low [especially considering all the young kids in the audience] when you have a scene full of creepy atmosphere set in a eerily photographed wood of Jacob coming across his grandfather’s dead body with his eyes removed and then seeing a scary creature looming behind his psychiatrist, before I remembered that some of the Harry Potter films had moments just as scary. Still, it does seem that this will be quite an intense movie, one on the edge of being a horror film, though this feel then partially disappears even if later on we are still given some macabre details like a montage showing the dead bodies of kids being killed for their eyes and the villains sitting at their table eating them from a huge mountain of the things. There’s also a surprising jump scare involving a supposedly dead body that certainly startled me. By then though we’re not very scared of these bad guys because Samuel L. Jackson [and I’m surprised that Johnny Depp isn’t in the role] has chosen to, or has been asked to, play the chief baddie in a very hammy fashion. Of course it’s still Samuel L. Jackson so he’s fun to watch, but it weakens the sense of threat, even though his monsters the Hollows are still quite effective in design, and it’s a good idea that most of the good characters aren’t able to see them.
So why are Barron and his fellow Wights eating the eyes of young ‘Peculiars?’ It’s all because of some kind of experiment he and his lot were trying to do which turned them into monsters, and consuming these eyes reverses the process. The story though takes its time to bring in all this and more concerns the Peculiars and Jacob’s visits to their place, which has a garden containing topiary that seems to have been crafted by Edward Scissorhands. They are quite a unique bunch with some odd skills. There’s Emma Bloom who can control air and make air bubbles, and who must be weighted or tethered to prevent her from floating away. There’s Millard Nunnings who is invisible. Fiona Frauenfeld who can create and control plants. Enoch O’Connor who can briefly resurrect the dead. Claire Densmore who has an extra mouth hidden in the back of her hair. Two masked twins who are Gorgons. Horace Somusson who has prophetic dreams and who provides one of the film’s most imaginative moments when he projects his dreams onto a screen so the others can watch them like a movie. And so forth. And let’s not forget headmistress Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine who can turn into a falcon. She and the children live in an endless time loop created by Miss Peregrine to avoid sudden death, and into this time loop comes Jacob, who seems to be accepted by the other kids rather quickly aside from one who fancies the girl whom Jacob becomes friendly with, a girl who, decades ago had a relationship with Jacob’s grandfather, with whom Jacob’s father had a frosty relationship, probably just because Burton’s films often contain father/son issues.
Of course it all winds up with lots of CGI action, but a fight on Blackpool Pier between living skeletons and Hollows who are made visible by snow and sticky children’s sweets is certainly one of the more original big action scenes of the year. There’s a very nice moment involving two hideous toys which look like they were created using stop motion, but elsewhere Burton doesn’t really make the most of certain bits like the resurrection of a wrecked ship which could have been an amazing, magical moment, while the more melancholic elements of the story, elements which Burton would probably have been more interested in a while back, are given short shrift. The tale’s emotional heart should be a phone conversation between Jacob and his grandfather as a young man, but the cut-to-the-bone scene barely registers. The first half of the story tends to take its time but in the second half it feels rather rushed, worse of all being a concluding montage which in no way results in the emotional effect it was probably intended to have.
There’s been much criticising of the performance by Asa Butterfield in the lead role, but to me he conveys a good amount of subdued intensity. I don’t think the character’s intended to be an outwardly emotional type. Eva Green just seems like she’s playing Vanessa Ives again, Chris O’ Dowd seems poorly miscast and fourth billed Judi Dench must be in the film for what….five minutes? Oddly Danny Elfman doesn’t score this movie, something which has caused rumours of a fall out, but it seems that Elfman was just too busy to do it. Composers Michael Higham and Matthew Margeson appear to have been asked by their director to do an Elfman-like score and it really could have come from the man himself. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children does, despite its issues, still just about come off and it certainly doesn’t seem like a film its director was entirely disinterested in, while it’s certainly considerably superior to Dark Shadows and Alice In Wonderland which really did make me feel that he’d lost it. However, it still doesn’t really dispel the notion that he still seems to be going through the motions just a bit, and that he maybe ought to take a break so he can then come back and give us something approaching the quality of Edward Scissorhands or Big Fish or Sleepy Hollow again. In the mean time, I did find this film’s world, its concepts and its characters intriguing enough to warrant further outings, and there’s plenty of directors around who would find it a good fit.