Tuesday, October 25, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

To describe ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ as Tim Burton’s best film in a decade isn’t really saying much. Being honest, I’d say that ‘Big Fish’ and ‘Corpse Bride’ are the only two Burton films that have really ticked the boxes for me in the last couple of decades. In some respects, ‘Miss Pegerine’ seems like an interim work, something designed to prove that Burton still has a bit of clout at the box office; something solid and commercial with just enough of his usual visual style (mainly evident in the garden of the eponymous dwelling) to appease the fans; something to rake in a few shekels ahead of the next passion project.

(What’s that you say? IMDb lists his upcoming projects as ‘Beetlejuice 2’ and a live-action remake of ‘Dumbo’? Well shut my mouth!)

Adapted from Ransom Riggs’s debut novel, the story takes no time getting into mysterious territory as unpopular teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is called away from his dead-end job at a supermarket to attend to his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), who has been acting in a disturbed and incoherent manner. Jake gets there too late. There’s been disturbance, Abe’s home ransacked, and Abe himself mortally wounded. Jake realises, dumbstruck, that his grandfather’s eyes are missing, a discovery he makes seconds before a tall unearthly creature flees the scene.

The tragedy prompts Jake to recollect Abe’s stories – told to him as a boy – of a home for peculiar children in Wales where he knew the propietress Miss Peregrine and her preternaturally gifted charges. Stories disabused by Jake’s well-meaning but intolerably dull father, Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), and emotionally absent mother Maryann (Kim Dickens). Nonetheless, on the advice of psychiatrist Dr Golan (Alison Janney), Jake and Franklin take a father-son trip to Wales to find the home and perhaps some degree of closure for Jake.

Long story short, Jake discovers that while the home in its contemporary state is little more than crumbling shell, there’s a way of accessing it as it was in 1943. He meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and is immediately smitten with Emma (Ella Purnell), who can manipulate air and wears lead boots so she doesn’t float away. The home is trapped in a loop, which Miss P resets every day, just at the point where a German bomb is about to destroy it. As Jake engages with the others – well, some of them: embittered puppeteer Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) takes against him from the off – and finds more to live for in their insular community than anything in his colourless life back home, danger threatens his potential haven.

Miss P and her charges are preyed on by Wights, similarly gifted individuals who are also pariahs from normal society. The Wights, however, are attempting an experiment that will allow them to disguise themselves and thus move undetected in conventional society. The nature of the experiment requires the sacrifice of “ymbrenes”, those who protect peculiar children by hiding them in loops. Miss P, for example. When Wight leader Mr Baron (Samuel L Jackson) infiltrates the loop and gets the drop on Miss P, Jake is forced to lead the others in a fight back.

The film takes an ‘Inception’-style approach to its world-building, throwing out whole screeds of exposition in its first half, barely pausing to let the audience catch up. There’s a huge accretion of detail for what is essentially a boilerplate good vs. evil narrative. Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman establish a very specific set of rules and, for the most part, stick to them. (Granted, there’s some business at the very end that plays fast and loose with the film’s interior logic, but it’s in service to such a breathlessly delivered crowd-pleasing coda that it’s easy to forgive.) The net result is that there’s a long section which sets up each of the different children and their particular peculiarity, explores their interrelationships and lets them react to/engage with Jake, describes the minutiae of the endlessly looped day, and sketches in the threat personified by the Wights and their invisible monster helpers the hollows. In the hands of a journeyman director, this could have stopped the film dead. With Burton at the helm, the moments of narrative inertia are where his imagination presses the button marked “go wild” and cinematic magic occurs.

Now, before anyone accuses me of hyberbole, it’s worth reasserting that this isn’t the deliriously manic Burton of ‘Beetlejuice’ or even the throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks Burton of ‘Mars Attacks!’ And it’s definitely not the auteur-makes-defiantly-personal-statement Burton of ‘Edward Scissorhands’ or ‘Ed Wood’, though mercifully it avoids the mawkishness of the former. This is Burton being given £110million of studio money and making damn sure he turns in a studio picture, but having fun studding it with trademark Burton moments. And those moments really fly. It helps no end, of course, that he’s aided by a game and enthusiastic young cast whose performances are anchored by Eva Green (an eccentric talent who is perfectly suited to Burton’s world) and Samuel L Jackson, who has a high old time as Baron, riding vertiginously close to pantomime villain shenanigans but pulling out a genuine sense of menace for the big set-pieces.

‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is fun – quirky enough to be individual and with an undertone of the macabre (some business involving eyeballs reminds us we ain’t in Disney territory here), but ultimately fun. A climactic battle between the peculiars and the hollows on Brighton pier earned the vocal appreciation of the audience at the screening I attended. As a Tim Burton film, it doesn’t present the intensely personal artistic statement that defines his premiere division work, but as a mainstream fantasy film it delivers.

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