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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

DIRECTOR: Tim Burton

CAST: Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Kim Dickens, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench

REVIEW:

If you’ve ever wondered what X-Men might be like filtered through the bizarre sensibilities of Tim Burton, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might give some idea.  An adaptation of the novel by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine is sufficiently off-kilter to represent a more fresh and engaging fantasy adventure than much of what populates the young adult genre, although it’s somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

We start in modern day Florida, where socially awkward teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield) rushes to the home of his eccentric grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) after an emergency phone call, only to find Abe has been murdered in the woods (with his eyes missing, no less) and his home ransacked.  Compelled by his grandfather’s dying words, and Jake’s memories of childhood bedtime stories about monsters, “peculiar” children with various superpowers, and the boarding school Abe supposedly attended in his youth in Wales, run by the mysterious Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), Jake persuades his apathetic father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him on a trip to Wales, determined to uncover the school.  A little meandering around the Welsh countryside and a stumble through a time loop later, and Jake finds himself transported back to 1943, where the inhabitants of Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children live out the same day over and over for all eternity, partly because failure to “reset” would let the eternally-delayed German bomb that destroyed the school and killed all who lived there to finally land, partly to hide them from a renegade faction led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who believe they can achieve immortality by devouring the eyes of other Peculiars.

If the synopsis hasn’t made it clear, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a peculiar film (not that that should come as a surprise from anything with Tim Burton’s name on it).  It’s a bit like a mash-up of X-Men and more traditional fantasy elements (with a dash of some Doctor Who-esque time paradoxes thrown in), but avoids feeling overly derivative.  Perhaps recognizing that the novel’s cliffhanger ending isn’t a cinematically satisfying stopping point for a film franchise with no guarantee of sequels, screenwriter Jane Goldman reworked the ending of Riggs’ novel to give more of a sense of closure while also leaving things open enough for a continuation should box office profits make that viable, but it otherwise hews fairly closely to its source material.  X-Men style, the children all have very specific peculiarities; there’s Emma (Ella Purnell), who is lighter than air and must wear lead shoes to avoid floating away, and Olive (Lauren McCrostie), who can start fires with her hands, among various others, while Jake seems the least “peculiar” of the group, until it turns out he has the strategically valuable ability to see Barron’s monstrous henchmen the Hollows (who are invisible to everyone else).  The movie at times warrants its PG-13 rating; there’s no sex or profanity, but the grotesque, giant “Hollows” are freakishly creepy and might be too scary for small children.  There’s also lots of eeriness drifting in from other corners, including the surly Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) and his power to animate toys, inanimate objects, and even corpses for his own amusement, and a scene with Jake and Emma finding a stolen romantic moment in an underwater shipwreck still populated with the skeletons of its crew seated around the dining tables, that’s both visually striking and more than a little macabre.  There’s a scene where Enoch animates several action figures (made up of a mishmash of ill-matched parts and looking like they were put together by Toy Story‘s Sid) and makes them fight for his entertainment, where the style of animation of the figures makes them look like they wandered in from A Nightmare Before Christmas.  There’s also an homage to Ray Harryhausen’s work from Jason and the Argonauts as Enoch reanimates the crew of skeletons from the shipwreck to battle the Hollows.  

The cast is mostly made up of young fresh faces, with a few familiar adults scattered around in supporting roles.  Asa Butterfield fits the bill of a socially awkward teenager, although as in Ender’s Game, there are times when he’s a little wooden and doesn’t show much range.  He’s nicely-paired up with Ella Purnell, who has a suitably ethereal quality as Emma, although their budding romantic connection feels a little overblown in the significance it’s meant to have versus what’s actually developed onscreen.  Eva Green is suitably off-kilter as the mysterious and oddball Miss Peregrine (a role one might have expected Tim Burton’s regular collaborator and ex romantic partner Helena Bonham Carter to have popped up in), although her more limited screentime and the PG-13 rating holds her back a bit from some of her other juicier roles in things like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).  Samuel L. Jackson is picking up a paycheck; Barron looks creepy, with fangs, whited-out eyes, and hair that looks like it was borrowed from the Bride of Frankenstein, but one is left wishing Jackson had played it a little straighter instead of coasting along on his usual shtick.  Other than Green and Jackson, the few recognizable adults—Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Alison Janney—have small walk-on roles.

The set-up of Miss Peregrine is more intriguing than the pay-off.  The obligatory climactic battle feels rushed and underwhelming (in fact, the whole subplot with Barron, who doesn’t get much screentime until the third act, feels a little shoehorned in for a perfunctory dose of action), though that might be a by-product of Goldman tweaking the novel to give more of a “climax” to the film.  In any case, these and some other half-baked elements leave Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a little underwhelming, but it at least cannot be accused of being generic.  Its level of weirdness makes it more fresh and engaging than a lot of what comes down the pipe, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting its off-kilter world.

* * 1/2

 

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