Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2016)

18. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Last we saw Tim Burton, he had directed “Big Eyes,” an adult-skewing drama that was made with hopes towards winning an Oscar. Despite being a decent flick, it would strike out with Academy voters. After having his serious filmmaking dreams dashed once more, Tim Burton returned to the safe, welcoming arms of blockbuster film making. “Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children” is based off a young adult novel. Like many Y.A. adaptations, the film was made with the hopes of launching a franchise. Once again, we see the director painting a typical Hollywood script with his usual visual quirks.

His entire life, Jake’s grandfather has regaled him with stories about a magical house filled with extraordinary children. Each one had a strange ability, with a woman named Miss Peregrine watching over them. As a kid, he believed him. As a lonely teenager, he now believes his grandfather to be crazy. After receiving a startling phone call, he finds his grandfather dead, his eyes sucked out. Following a strange letter, Jake discovers his granddad’s stories were true. He discover the home of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children, kept in a time loop in the Welsh countryside. Jake is drawn into a world of adventure, as Peregrine and her kids are pursued by sinister forces.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” – has there ever been a more Tim Burton-y title? – filters a number of popular ideas through the director’s sensibilities. The concept concerns a wise adult overseeing a school occupied by uniquely gifted children, each one born with a different power or ability. Like, say, “X-Men.” Gifted young people learning to use their abilities also brings the “Harry Potter” series to mind, as does a seemingly normal youth entering a fantasy world. The time loop setting recalls “Peter Pan” and “Groundhog Day.” The villains are tall, skinny, pale, faceless, tentacled monsters in dark suits who prey on children. In other words, an exact quote of the Slender Man internet meme. Burton takes these well worn ideas and drowns them in gothic atmosphere, spooky touches, and quirky humor. This is a clear example of the director’s modern day work-for-hire mentality. You hire Tim Burton to add some Tim Burton flair to an otherwise typical project.

Yet all the spooky touches in the world couldn’t disguise the stock parts script. Once the villains are revealed, “Home for Peculiar Children” becomes a chase pictures. The heroes are on the run from the bad guys, hoping to rescue their house mother before the villains kill her. There is a time restrain in place, something about the kids being unable to stay outside the time loop for so long. In truth, all the talks of different time loops is very confusing. The characters seemingly leap from time period to time period, without much interior logic. Maybe I just wasn’t following things. But the rules of “Miss Peregrine’s” fictional universe seem ungainly and convoluted. It’s all in service of an unspectacular adventure narrative.

When the film works, it doesn’t focus on the Y.A. plotting. When settled into the weird world of “Miss Peregrine’s,” the movie becomes more interesting. A long portion in the middle focuses on Jake living with the Peculiar Children. We meet the quirky cast. The girl full of helium, the invisible boy, the burning girl, the child who broadcasts his dreams through a glass eye, the little girl with the mouth in the back of her head, and so on. We see them go about their day. One child uses her powers to grow giant vegetables. Another catches a falling baby squirrel at the exact same time every afternoon. At the end of the day, Miss Peregrine sets back the clock another twenty-four hours, sending an Axis bomb floating back into the sky. These sequences are kind of cozy, seeing unusual people make a life for themselves in their own strange world. I honestly wish Burton could’ve made a plotless film focusing on this environment, instead of moving on to the typical fantasy/adventure plot.

And our guide into this peculiar world is Asa Butterfield’s Jake. In some ways, Jake is a typical Burton-esque protagonist. At story’s beginning, he lives in a drearily mediocre Florida suburb. He’s a pale skinned outsider, an awkward misfit with no luck with girls. The biggest difference between Jake and “Beetlejuice’s” Lydia or “Frankenweenie’s” Victor is Jake isn’t interesting. Asa Butterfield, still best known for “Hugo,” adapts a ridiculous American accent. He wearily walks from scene to scene, reacting to the crazy things happening to him. Eventually, we learn that Jake has powers of his own, a unique ability to see monsters. This seems like a last minute attempt to make the character compelling. The film should’ve been about Miss Peregrine or her adoptees. Butterfield’s Jake is a snore.

Tim Burton has cycled through several dark haired, gothic muses. Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, Lisa Marie, and Helena Bonham Carter have all come and gone. Now it seems the director has latched himself to Eva Green. Green was the best part of “Dark Shadows” and now she’s the best part of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Miss Peregrine’s magical ability is over time. This leads to an punctual attitude, demanding a similar exactness from everyone around her. She snaps a pocket watch open and close through the film, to emphasize this. She brings a strict body language to the entire part, a perfect diction to her dialogue. Green balances these aspects with a wry sense of humor, displayed through a rakish smile or perfectly timed nod. When the character is captured mid-way through the film, it suffers.

Burton fills the cast with recognizable character actors. Such as Terence Stamp as Jake’s grandfather and Judi Dench as another leader of a peculiar household. Or Chris O’Dowd as the boy’s doddering father, Allison Janney as his stiff psychiatrist, and Rupert Everett as an effete bird watcher. While all the performers do good work, the peculiar children show more potential. The cast is too large, with twelve children under Peregrine’s watch. Most of them are just gimmicks, like the super-strong girl or the boy with bees in his stomach. Others just serve plot purpose, such as the invisible boy or the girl with the green thumb. Yet occasionally an interesting performer emerges. Ella Purnell shows some charm as Emma, the helium girl. Lauren McCrostie gets a few notable moments as Olive, the pyrokinetic. Hayden Keeler-Stone displays some humor as Horace, the glass-eyed boy. Finlay MacMillan probably gives the best performance of the kids as Enoch, the moody boy who can resurrect the dead.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” didn’t receive much attention when it was released this past summer. What people did notice about it was its villain. Samuel L. Jackson plays Mr. Barron, the shape-shifting bad guy who extends his life by eating the eyes of peculiar children. Jackson hams it up as usual, doing what he can to distinguish the part. What upset people was the film making its sole black character the villain, preying on the lily-white cast of heroes. I don’t think Burton or anyone else meant anything by this choice. It simply reflects Burton’s suburban view point, which is predominantly white. But the implications are unfortunate, to say the least.

Long stretches of “Miss Peregrine’s” are forgettable. It’s most memorable moments are the ones that reflect the director’s style the most. Enoch uses his death-defying abilities not to bring the sick back to death. Instead, he reanimates little morbid dolls, making the monsters fight for his amusement. (He references a past habit to do the same with corpses.) Later in the film, he brings too life a derelict boat full of skeletons. In Burton’s most recent homage to Ray Harryhausen, the skeleton warriors leap around, defending the heroes. While CGI is subbed in for stop motion, the effect is similar. Watching the skeletal goofballs get torn apart or leap around is infectiously fun. I wish the film had more fun stuff like that.

Burton’s tendencies as a filmmaker is apparent in other ways too. My favorite scene without skeletons involves a trip into a sunken ship. The slow motion dive down is well executed and the flooded interior is oddly eerie. A flashback shows Jackson altering his comrades with a mad scientist get-up that wouldn’t be out of place in a fifties sci-fi flick. One of his allies is shown to be a monkey woman, a bizarrely memorable touch. The climax of the film is set among a seaside carnival. The dark ride features prominently, as you’d expect. There’s a surprisingly lack of black and white spiral or jaunty tubas on the soundtrack. (Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson compose the score, presumably because Danny Elfman was busy.) Yet Burton’s aesthetic shines through anyway.

Some times, it even feels like Tim was trying to make a horror movies for kids. Aside from the skeletons and reanimated corpses, there are other grisly components. The villains’ habit of eating eyeballs is lingered on to a creepy degree. Among Miss Peregrine’s brood is a pair of creepy twins, with pale skin and clown-like faces. Later, we discover their masks cover petrifying medusa faces. The slender men’s initial appearance is played for horror. As they become more explained, they loose that spookiness. By the time they’re pelted with snowballs and cotton candy, the fear is totally gone. I can still see the younger audience members getting creeped out by this one, even if the adults will be left unaffected.

Ultimately, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a middle-of-the-road affair. It’s not a particularly bad film, being far too inoffensive for that. There are a handful of things about it that are really interesting. Like Green, the titular setting, and the quirky, spooky bits. These inspired elements are strangled by a formulaic and long-winded screenplay. It all adds to a film that isn’t likely to be remembered. “Home for Peculiar Children” did mediocre business domestically but turned into a modest hit overseas, prompting talks of a sequel. Tim Burton doesn’t sound very enthused about this possibility and neither am I. [Grade: C+]

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