MOVIE REVIEW: MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
November 11, 2016
It is rare to find a perfect match between filmmaker and material; rarer still to see that match made in heaven come to fruition with glorious result. But that is exactly what we have with Tim Burton and MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, a gloriously goth, visually imaginative and engaging film yet with a caring, sweet edge that finds Tim Burton once again at the top of his game and almost assuredly, at the top of the box office.
Directed by Burton and written by Jane Goldman based on Ransom Riggs' inspired best-seller of the same name melding fiction and photography, (side note: If you haven't already read the book, do it! You will love it.), MISS PEREGRINE introduces us to the world of "peculiars", but not before we meet 16-year old Jacob Portman.
With a strong connection and love for his grandfather Abe, imagine Jacob's horror as Abe is murdered in his Floridian backyard, apparently while trying to defend himself from a creature that we eventually come to learn is a "hollowgast", a shapeshifter of sorts, and in this case a 25 foot tall long-limbed gangly thing with slender six foot long razor sharp pointed "fingers", long pointed teeth and tentacle-filled mouth with an appetite for stealing eyeballs from "peculiars", and dressed in what might be a lovely pinstriped suit if normal sized. (Imagine a malevolent perversion of Burton's famed "Jack Skellington".) Jacob not only finds Abe, but he sees the hollowgast. In fact, he is the only one who can see it.
Given that no one believes him, Jacob is sent to a therapist to help him get over his "nightmares." Between his sessions with Dr. Golan and discoveries in Abe's house as Jacob helps his more than worthless dad pack up Abe's things, Jacob gets a sense of what he must do. Recalling adventurous stories told him as a child by Abe, Jacob finds evidence that those weren't "stories", but real people and real events with their own unusual connections to Abe. Convincing Dr. Golan that a trip to Wales would help him get over Abe's passing, on her recommendation, Jacob and his bird-watching dad Franklin head to the little town of Cairnholm.
Imagine Jacob's disappointment at finding the once-beautiful Victorian orphanage where Abe lived empty but for the lasting destruction of Nazi bombings in WWII. But as he searches the crumbling ruins, Jacob suspects the house is not as empty as it seems and he soon finds himself face-to-face with Emma, a lovely young girl who hasn't aged a day since she was photographed by Abe in the 1940's. Suddenly, Jacob finds himself transported back in time, meeting all of the children in pictures Abe had shown him over the years, children who were Abe's friends. But imagine greater still Jacob discovering that he, like his grandfather, is also "peculiar" with a certain talent not known or visible to mere humans.
On meeting the blue-streaked raven-haired Miss Peregrine, Jacob learns that she is an ymbrine. Capable of transforming into a bird, in her case a peregrine falcon, Miss Peregrine's talents allow her to create "loops" a la "Groundhog Day", where a 24-hour period repeats forever; in this case the day before the bomb struck destroying the orphanage. It is the job of Miss Peregrine and other ymbrines to protect the "peculiars" and keep them hidden from the shape-shifting hollowgasts led by the evil scientist Barron who believes that eyes of peculiars will give him immortality. But no one can see when or from where the hollowgasts will attack, no one but Abe, and now Jacob.
It's as if Ransom Riggs wrote MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN specifically with Tim Burton in mind. A beautiful blend of photographs and story in the novel, characters of "sideshow freaks" come to life in Burton's gifted mind and lens - Hugh has bees in his head, Horace is invisible, Enoch can take bits and pieces of dolls and other things and create "living" creatures (among them a skeleton army that pays the greatest homage to Ray Harryhaussen), Emma controls air and wears lead shoes to stay on the ground, Claire with a monster mouth in the back of her head, the masked twins, and more. Burton captures the beauty and power of each "peculiar" with a deft touch, and at the same time, weaves elements of his entire cinematic career into the overall tapestry.
Incorporating the stop-motion techniques we saw in "Frankenweenie" the long razor-sharp fingers and topiary skills of "Edward Scissorhands", the detailed minutiae of "Dark Shadows" production design, not to mention the beauteous contrasting lensing between 1943 and 2016 plus similarly heightened saturation all courtesy of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who shot "Dark Shadows"), Burton together with production designer Gavin Bocquet creates a world of whimsical wonder and baroque beauty. Noteworthy is that Burton treads lightly with the introduction of each "peculiar" child, celebrating and lovingly caring for each as opposed to approaching them as carnival freaks. Even a visual dichotomous metaphor of a climactic scene at a seaside boardwalk with carnival rides and funhouses is handled tastefully.
There is an emotional intelligence - visually and on the page - we haven't really seen in a Burton film over the past 15 or so years, which just adds to the excitement and engagement of the project. Be it Jacob's coming-of-age, the idea of never-ending youth, father-son relationships, adventure, loyalty and the ideology of choice, risk and sacrifice, all unfolds seamlessly with an entertaining ease.
Thanks to scribe Jane Goldman, the script adheres very closely to the book, but then we are also treated to heartwarming moments between the "peculiars" and Jacob, Jacob and Abe, and a sweetly charming and humor-filled romance between Jacob and Emma, the latter of which leads a stunning reverse "Titanic-esque" third act. Every scene, every image, dazzles on multiple levels while at its core is an embraceable poignancy.
Not only is the match of Riggs' novel with Tim Burton a perfect match, but so is Burton's re-teaming with Eva Green. As Miss Peregrine, Green soars. From the raven hair to the alabaster skin and deep red 1940's Max Factor lips and perfectly black-lined eyes, all come together with the spit-spot crisp efficiency and polish which Green gives Peregrine. As we have seen from Green time again with other roles, she has the innate talent for walking that rapier line of comic book camp and sincerity, and does so here with flying colors.
Perfectly cast as Jacob is Asa Butterfield. Given that we have watched Butterfield on screen from small on, it bodes well for him to be in this now coming-of-age role, so resonant to the pre-teen and teen audiences who I expect will gravitate towards theatres this weekend. Butterfield is effectively monotone until Jacob comes into his own with his peculiar gifts, allowing facial nuance to speak his emotions. Beyond endearing, and with its own inherent humor, is the budding relationship between Jacob and Emma. In an interesting twist, Emma was the love interest of Jacob's grandfather. And in a testament to Butterfield, Ella Purnell's performance as Emma, and Burton's direction, there is never a sense of anything "skeevy" about Jacob and Emma. What does stand out is that although Emma has been living in 1943 for the past 70+ years, she has a very take charge, 21st century can-do attitude on women. Refreshing.
As Abe, Burton could do no better than Terrence Stamp. Playing against type and Stamp's indelible look, as opposed to the expected tinge of evil, what we get instead is a loving, caring grandfather who will do anything for the grandson he loves so dearly. If you don't know the book, it's interesting to see Abe play out and Stamp's transition over key events in his own life and that of Jacob. Sadly, we don't get enough of Judi Dench who delights as ymbrine Miss Avocet. Flustered and frenzied, with a bit more screen time and more developed character, she could be to MISS PEREGRINE what Maggie Smith is to Hogwarts. Still, a joy to see and a fun performance.
Having seen Milo Parker in "Mr. Holmes", I have been anxiously awaiting him as bee-swarming Hugh in MISS PEREGRINE. Parker has an intensity and thoughtfulness to him that bodes well for the roles he has thus far selected in his career trajectory. Parker doesn't disappoint here and I look forward to seeing his continued growth on screen.
Finlay MacMillan is an interesting chap who with this performance of Enoch, is perhaps the very embodiment of what we have come to expect in Tim Burton's darkness. Shades of frustration and anger simmer beneath the surface, while sly looks capture the twisted whimsy of Enoch's creative streak with inanimate objects, particularly with doll parts put together in unanatomically correct fashion.
The one annoyance of MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, however, is Chris O'Dowd as Jacob's father Franklin. It's one thing to be somewhat bumbling and disconnected as a parent, but to be a disrespectful and disinterested buffoon is another. The performance doesn't sit well. It bears noting that once Jacob fully embraces the world of MISS PEREGRINE and the peculiars, Franklin disappears from the film like a dangling participle with no closure.
Some of the most hilarious, and tense, turns in the film come courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney and Rupert Everett. As Barron, Jackson is over-the-top, blending malevolence with laugh-out-loud funny thanks to pushing the envelope as only Jackson can do. Janney, on the other hand, delivers such a deliberately forced, artificially controlled performance as Dr. Golan from excruciatingly unemotional discussions with Jacob and his parents to perfect seated posture that makes one wonder if she has a stick up her butt holding her in place, that you can't help but laugh. Someone so droll as helping a young teen get in touch with his emotions? It's beyond rich. Rupert Everett, whom we don't see enough on the big screen, is strangely delicious as a beach-going ornithologist sparking jealousy in Jacob's father. Thanks to Colleen Atwood's costuming, tell tale signs of suspicion are raised with the first look at Everett, all decked out in vintage attire, sticking out like a sore thumb among the blue jeans, shorts, t-shirts and windbreakers and hoodies of the Welsh locals. As comes as no surprise, Everett like Jackson knows how to push the envelope, even with subtlety.
Speaking of Colleen Atwood, gorgeous are the designs of Eva Green's more rigid yet sumptuous Victorian couture, while Atwood incorporates whimsy into the costuming of the peculiars while staying true to the 1943 period attire.
Having served as music editor on the past seven Tim Burton films, Michael Higham steps into the role of composer and together with Matthew Margeson creates a score that not only captures the ages and passage of time, but the wonder and whimsy of the peculiars while melding notes of adventure, excitement and even terror. A tonally resonant score that mirrors the visuals and story, like the film itself, this score is one of the best ever with a Tim Burton film.
Tim Burton is right at home in MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. A visually imaginative world of whimsical wonder and baroque beauty laced with an underlying sweetness and thrill of adventure, one look you'll find yourself wanting to be peculiar, too.
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Jane Goldman based on the novel by Ransom Riggs
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Terrence Stamp, Judi Dench, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Milo Parker, Ella Purnell