So once again we have survived.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

tn_missperegrineMISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN takes place in a quirky, goth-y world of young outcast monsters, a story for young people who enjoy the macabre, a premise that sounds like X-MEN but plays more like THE ADDAMS FAMILY. It seems tailor made for a Tim Burton comeback film. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe he needs to find something off the rack that looks good on him. No, actually that’s probly what he did here. Maybe he needs to sew something himself. I don’t know. This metaphor got away from me.

Asa Butterfield (HUGO) plays Jake, our protagonist and first person narrator, who lives a boring life in a Scissorhandsian Florida suburb until one day he finds his Grandpa (Terence Stamp, ELEKTRA, THE PHANTOM MENACE) dead in the woods with his fucking eyeballs plucked out. (The police soothe him by explaining that dogs ate ’em.) Also he sees a giant.

Kinda like BIG FISH, he finds himself tracing the seemingly-fantastical tales Grandpa told him and left behind in letters, journals, photos and maps. (Burton has been past his prime long enough that he’s harkening back to movies from past his prime.) He convinces his dad (Chris O’Dowd, CALVARY) to bring him to Wales to see this children’s home where Grandpa once lived.

Long story short, it turns out to have been bombed by the Nazis right after he left. But also the kids inside all had “peculiar” abilities, and their headmistress used hers to create a time loop so they can continuously live inside the last day before it was destroyed. GROUNDHOG DAY rules seem to apply. They know what’s going to happen, but they retain their memories. And they don’t physically age.

Jake enters the time loop, meets the kids and learns their gimmicks. His guide is Emma (Ella Purnell, who played young versions of the leads in NEVER LET ME GO, MALEFICENT and THE LEGEND OF TARZAN), who is “lighter than air” and has to strap on steampunk style weighted boots so as to not float away like a lost balloon. It’s classic Burton imagery when they walk around together and she’s tethered to him, floating behind like a kite.

mp_missperegrineThere’s an invisible boy, a firestarter, a boy with bees inside him (the white Candyman), a girl with a monster mouth on the back of her head, etc. The obvious fan favorites are “the twins,” two kids in terrifying burlap sack clown costumes whose powers are vaguely explained. My personal favorite is Bronwyn (Pixie Davies, NATIVITY 2: DANGER IN THE MANGER!), just a little girl with super strength, but it’s funny every time she carries him around or throws a couch or something. And the actual coolest ability goes to Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who can puppeteer things by putting a disembodied heart inside them. This leads to a a stop motion sequence of creepy misfit toys fighting each other and also marionetting dead bodies.

It turns out the police were wrong, Grandpa’s eyeballs were not eaten by dogs. I would say the police unions might boycott the movie, but luckily for them it turns out it was a black guy, Samuel L. Jackson (THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT) as Barron, a mad scientist or whatever who is up to some kind of experiment thing where he has to capture an “Ymbrine,” which is what headmistress Miss Peregrine is, a lady who creates time loops who also turns into a bird. (You know. An Ymbrine.) He gets his strength from eating eyeballs and his henchmen are giants like the one Jake saw in the woods, who are basically just Jack Skellington if he existed in the movie SILENT HILL.

One problem with these giants: they’re called “hollowgasts,” which is pronounced “hologaust” in the movie. I find it surprising that the author of the book it’s based on, Ransom Riggs, or his editor, or screen adapter Jane Goldman (KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE), or Burton, or any of the producers, didn’t think maybe call these monsters something else. They do tend to abbreviate it to “hollows,” at least.

There are a bunch of cool things in this movie, and probly the one most of us will remember is the scene where Barron slurps down a bowl of children’s eyeballs. And they’re extra gross because they have the ocular nerve thing hanging off the back. And the movie turns fun when there’s a big battle where the kids work together and use their abilities to fight Barron and his skellingtons.

The problem is that’s pretty much the end of the movie. To me the movie feels hollow because it spends more time explaining its world than living in it. Here are these kids and these are their names and these are their abilities and this is the time loop they live in and this is how it’s made and this is what you call the person that makes it and this is how that works and here is this guy and this is what he’s trying to do and this is what you call those monsters and this is what they do…

Fine, but when the tour is over can we have a story? So these kids have survived for decades inside this home, but what exactly do they do in there? I like the part where Emma catches a baby squirrel that she knows falls out of a tree every day. And they all have meals together. Otherwise, what do they do? Do they have some purpose? I don’t know.

I’m not the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan, but I get Harry Potter. They go to school to learn about wizardry, they make friends, they play sports, there’s also a prophecy and they end up fighting the bad wizards and we know what those guys are trying to do. They get to exist in the world, not just tell us what the different things are called.

I guess it’s kind of like THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN if they weren’t an investigative agency, they just lived in a house together.

These peculiar children who are the fun part of the movie don’t get much chance to become real characters, which would be fine if that didn’t mean they’re in the background most of the time. Butterfield is likable but a little stiff with all this explanatory dialogue he has to do, and since he doesn’t even think he has a peculiarity we’re focusing on the least interesting character of the bunch. (Eventually he figures out that he has the ability to see the hollowgasts, which is narratively important but the least exciting super power.) And I could not get invested in his love story with Emma. They have no reason to really fall for each other except that she’s another of Burton’s unnatural blond angels like Winona Ryder in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS or Cristina Ricci in SLEEPY HOLLOW.

I didn’t mention that Eva Green plays Miss Peregrine. I love Eva Green, who could’ve had a career just being a sex symbol, but she quickly became a great actress, particularly good at playing seductive and crazy and funny and evil (not all of those used here) and who understands the power of mega. She’s great in Burton’s DARK SHADOWS (which I enjoyed) and she’s great in this. Miss Peregrine is obviously supposed to be a plucky, unflappable, magical woman who inspires and protects the children, holds her head high at all times and is never less than super awesome. In the style of Mary Poppins, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle or Adele Blanc-Sec. Green absolutely gets that across, but if not for her performance, what would this character be? What is she about? She has big hair and she turns into a bird and she makes time loops and has a crossbow. A list of attributes in search of a soul.

I still like Burton’s style and humor, but he needs better scripts than this if he’s ever gonna be great again. His cool monsters and gags aren’t enough to give life to off brand Harry Potter. And it doesn’t help that he seems to have broken up with Danny Elfman again. I think this is his only movie besides ED WOOD not to have an Elfman score, and poor newcomers Michael Higham and Matthew Margeson are no Howard Shore.

Burton has been caricatured as just a stylist who created cartoon goth fodder for Hot Topic back before they switched to whatever it is they sell now. But he was once much more than an identifiable visual style; his best films felt intensely personal and operatically emotional. This summer I saw what suburban Burbank looked like and I felt like I understood him better. He had been a shy kid growing up there feeling out of place, finding solace in drawing and watching monster movies. Something about that youthful emotion haunted him as a young man and he captured it vividly in a unique type of modern fairy tale. He deeply felt characters like Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington and his version of Ed Wood, so people relate to those feelings and recognize parts of themselves in them.

Here he revisits some of those themes, but it just feels routine. I think he’s kinda grown out of that outcast weirdo thing, as you might too after decades of being a celebrated Hollywood icon and merchandising cottage industry. Or he’s been over it enough that it doesn’t make his heart beat fast anymore. I hope one of these days a story comes to him – probly something small and scrappy, probly not another remake or adaptation – that speaks profoundly to how he feels today, not just how he remembers feeling as a kid. He’s too talented to keep spinning his wheels like this.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, October 7th, 2016 at 5:16 pm and is filed under Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children”

  1. The reviews calling this a return to from for Burton confound me, this movie is terrible like almost all of his other post-SLEEPY HOLLOW movies have been. I liked how Jackson was acting in a completely different movie from everyone else and the Harryhausen skeletons vs the Slendermen was cool. Other than that, this one bored me to tears and I pretty much hated all the characters, the worst tendencies from both late-period Burton and these Young Adult movies.

    That said, I keep rooting for Burton though. He was the first director I ‘noticed’ when I was young and I don’t think I would have become the cinephile that I am without growing up while he was a rising filmmaker. Every time he does an interview, I’m reminded of why I loved his work (still love his early works). Then again, if he’s enjoying himself and his work, who cares what I think. I’m trying to not be like those STAR WARS guys who just can’t let it go.

  2. Am I the only one who is a little amused by how Burton’s recent comments about diversity did NOT end in a huge scandal, blogosphere shitstorm and apologetic Variety interviews? Okay, some people were outraged, but it’s like most of the world just smiled at what the socially awkward, almost 60 years head and went: “It’s okay, Timmy. We know you are not that articulate and maybe didn’t meant it the way it came out. Now play with your spiders.”

    Anyway, I think the “problem” with modern day Burton movies is, that he reached is style peak in the early 90s. He never was an independent filmmaker, who had to shoot with low budgets and slowly had to work his way up until he could hire big stars and his movies became box office hits. His first three movies were PEE-WEE, BEETLEJUICE and BATMAN, so after that, he could do whatever he wanted, while being backed by the studios. He got pretty much all personal movies out of his system, between his ED trilogy in two parts (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and ED WOOD). After that, he pretty much did heavily autheured paycheck movies. (Not complaining about that, since the only Burtons so far that disappointed me completely, were ALICE IN WONDERLAND and BIG EYES, so that’s a good track record for a filmmaker, who according to the internet, stopped being good in 1996.)

  3. *That was supposed to be ” what the socially awkward, almost 60 years old said”. Don’t know why I typed “head”.

  4. I think I might be the only person in the world who really liked Big Eyes. Maybe because I wasn’t expecting much since I’ve honestly been disappointed by about 90% of Tim Burton’s movies. (I think Pee Wee and Edward Scissorhands are the only other two of his movies that I really like) Big Eyes was probably his most restrained, but it also cared more about developing characters than overloading on quirk or style. Alot of that might have been the pretty amazing performance by Amy Adams, an actress who everyone loves but I think is just sorta there. She’s never bad, but I’ve never seen her actually be GREAT in a movie until Big Eyes.

    Speaking of great, Eva Green has been on a freaking roll as of late, even in the awful Sin City 2, so I’ll at least check this movie out on video. It can’t be worse than Alice in Wonderland/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc… Also, thanks for scaring the bejesus out of me with that Omega-Man style Samuel L. Jackson pic. Doesn’t he also play a similar villain with white hair who chases after kids in Jumper? I honestly can’t remember, that movie’s so bad.

  5. Jareth Cutestory

    October 8th, 2016 at 8:14 am

    I can’t think of a Burton movie I’d call “terrible.” A lot of the complaints I hear about him revolve around his failure to provide something I’m not sure he cares to adopt: a well structured script, relatable characters, stylistic restraint, emotional depth. I don’t know enough about the guy to say one way or another, but it occurs to me that perhaps he is consciously rejecting canonical ideas of classic filmatism. Maybe his outsider art requires a less conventional vehicle. Maybe he’s opting for a decidedly minor filmography. Guy Maddin is celebrated for doing exactly that. Maybe Burton finds value in coloring outside the lines. Most critics are certainly willing to cut slack to Tarantino’s perpetual adolescent fascination with lowbrow genre (you certainly don’t go into DJANGO UNCHAINED expecting to learn anything of substance about the post Civil War era or INGLORIOUS BASTARDS expecting a subtle psychological profile of a Nazi), so why should Burton be held to a more conventional standard?

    I saw Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND the same week as Raimi’s OZ movie, and, while neither was especially good, I liked Burton’s way more. Compare it to unmitigated crap like HANZEL & GRETEL WITCH HUNTERS and Burton’s strengths become more apparent.

    I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’d be happy to never see another kid’s fantasy movie. But any time I’ve passed a tv playing a Burton film, I’ve been drawn into it. Most of this shit – TIN TIN, AVENGERS, STAR WARS, PIXAR – mostly repulses me and drives me from the room.

    I made it about 30 minutes into HARRY POTTER. It was insipid and pandering in every possible aspect. It was like those terrible 1970s Disney movies like ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN. If that’s a well-crafted kids movie, I don’t want to know what a bad one looks like.

    Also, Eva Green’s performance in Penny Dreadful was phenomenal. That seance scene is one for the ages.

  6. Neal, BIG EYES has currently a 7.0 rating on IMDb and was all in all hailed by critics as Burton’s best in years, so you are not the only one who liked it. My problem was just how anonymous the whole thing felt and that the story was at the beginning of the movie hyped up as the craziest story you will ever hear, but then turned out just to be an average “married to a psychopath” drama.

  7. My contribution to the yearly State of the Burtonverse discussion: With hindsight, I think maybe the one-two-three-four punch of BATMAN RETURNS being received as a disappointment, ED WOOD flopping despite strong reviews, MARS ATTACKS! flopping and being poorly reviewed, and the years-in-development SUPERMAN project getting canned thanks to Warner Brothers and Joel Schumacher’s world historic mishandling of the BATMAN franchise knocked some to most of Burton’s creative wind out – SLEEPY HOLLOW is a terrible screenplay elevated by tremendous visuals, APES is anonymous fluff, BIG FISH is maudlin soap opera nonsense, etc. I agree with Jareth Cutestory that none of his films, perhaps minus APES and ALICE, are legit “bad” in the way most expensive blockbuster type movies are “bad”, but I think it’s telling that his work from PEE-WEE to MARS ATTACKS! is both incredibly diverse and still clearly guided by a (relatively) unified vision, while everything since has been increasingly scattershot. I kinda get the impression that he just doesn’t take directing particularly seriously anymore – I imagine he spends his downtown in front of the television watching TCM and doodling, not thinking up his next twee YA adaptation or whatever.

    I’ll watch this shit on cable to see Sam Jackson eat a bowl of children’s eyeballs though.

    Oh, and the first thing I thought of when I first read about the “diversity controversy” was how there are DC fanboys who still haven’t forgiven Burton for casting Harvey Dent as a black man, and how he was one studio note away from giving us a black Robin. Odd that Nolan, Whedon, Raimi, Edgar Wright, and so on have never gotten similar heat despite having comparatively lily-white filmographies. Almost like the internet has it in for the dude!

  8. The “controversy” over Burton’s lack of diversity is another case of the Internet having no sense of proportion. It’s true that his filmography is not very diverse, but why should it be given many of his own visual fetishes (gothy pale-skinned people in stylized homogenous suburbs evoking the 50s), not to mention the fact that he might be the single whitest human currently walking the earth? What exactly does one expect this uberhonky to contribute to the black cinematic experience? Why do we expect Burton to both make extremely personal and idiosyncratic films that are true to his own muse yet also expect him to incorporate characters and experiences that he can’t speak for? I’m not saying more diversity isn’t a good thing (such as the casting of Billy Dee Motherfucking Williams in the biggest movie of the biggest summer American cinema had yet experienced, at a time when Billy Dee couldn’t get arrested in mainstream Hollywood) but anybody who is on the other side of the argument, the one that claims there is no such thing as racism anymore, will look at this “controversy” and see it as just more Millenial bitching. It’s obvious to one and all that Burton is not the guy you want leading the charge on this particular issue, so why choose this hill to die on? It doesn’t help the overall cause at all.

  9. It’s weird how a systemic issue like racial representation in films gets laid at the feet of a single artist. Sure, there should be more roles for people of color in film. But instead of randomly singling out some director or writer, Hollywood should do more to produce films by and about people of color. (The same thing happened with that Girls TV show).

    I also enjoyed Big Eyes, even if it was at times by the numbers. It at least looked like Burton was branching out a bit. Also, Big Fish, Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie, and Corpse Bride are all good to great Burton films from the 21st century (which seems to be the dividing line between Burton as visionary and Burton as hack). The only film I outright hate of his is Alice in Wonderland. Every other post-2000 film by Burton has some good to great moments buried in a sea of mediocrity. He’s someone who clearly doesn’t care about the narrative as much as he does the visuals, so when he gets stuck with a bad script it seems to weigh the entire enterprise down.

  10. Jareth Cutestory

    October 9th, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Everything Majestyk wrote about Burton could also be written about David Lynch. Like Lynch, Burton has an uncanny ability to cast the right actor for the role. Can you imagine anyone other than Hopper playing Frank in BLUE VELVET? Or Depp in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS? As I understand, the Harvey Dent character is supposed to be charismatic in a very specific, public-facing manner. Charisma doesn’t come in packages more potent than Billy Dee Motherfucking Williams. If he was running for office I’d vote for him based on his mustache alone, with or without DeVito-as-a-penguin as his campaign manager.

    A Nic Cage SUPERMAN, while probably not true to the funnybooks, would have certainly been an intriguing alternative to the anonymous Sears catalogue underwear models who have inhabited the role post-Christopher Reeve. I could propose a similar argument about the failure to properly utilize an actor to play Batman following Michael Keaton, but without having seen Batfleck I could be wrong (I’m not).

    Apologies to any Dean Cain fans out there.

  11. Jareth, I think his casting of Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka really hurts that claim. Or his casting of Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter for that matter. Although, I think Depp could have pulled it and Burton’s fault is just that he thought Depp could bring himself to care anymore. And I’m sorry, but Nic Cage as Superman could only be interesting alternative in how different his awfulness would be. We’ve already seen Cage in a role of a comforting, all-powerful guardian in City of Angels and it didn’t work. At all.

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