Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
I suspect I’ve said this before, but a cardinal mistakes critics of Tim Burton’s current output make is suggesting he has somehow dumped on a magnificent early career. Really, he’s been forever hit and miss, at least since Batman. The chief charge you could lay against him is that, somewhere around Planet of the Apes, he began training a keener eye for what might make a no-brainer commercial property, what might benefit his bank account, rather than attaching himself to material he felt passionate about or enthused by. That said, his last, Big Eyes, was his best in some considerable time (and, going considerably against the grain, I rather liked Dark Shadows). Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, while superior, feels like it’s coming from the same calculated mind-set that picked out Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
I don’t want to appear too harsh on the movie, because it’s a perfectly reasonable, immaculately-produced entertainment, but it succeeds mainly in leaving the viewer profoundly unmoved. In that regard, it reminded me a little of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. There’s art direction in abundance, but it’s a smothering aspect of a rather generically affected, fantasy sheen. It’s Burton-esque, basically, but late (or mid) period: Plastic Burton.
Miss Peregrine has something workmanlike about it; it lacks energy, and the undercurrent of anarchy found in most of Burton’s best pictures is wholly absent. But then, as noted, he’s evidently done this for the dough, having searched fruitlessly for a hit during the past half-decade. This certainly won’t flop, and is bound to make its money back through post-cinema revenues eventually, but giving him more than $100m to spend on the adaptation was never going to be a good idea, any more than, in retrospect, letting Spielberg loose with untold sums on The BFG.
On one level, this feels like the closest the director has come to his most personal misfit protagonist, Edward Scissorhands (going against the grain again, I find that one a bit mushily overrated, truth be told), which makes the pervading sense of the formulaic that much more disappointing (there’s even an abundance of topiary). Perhaps Burton is simply caught in a midlife “been there, done that”, but can’t quite admit it? Jane Goldman has bashed out a solid screenplay, based on Ransom Riggs novel, but it’s no more than that, and thus very much less than her collaborations with Martin Vaughn. The picture earns its 12A/PG-13 certificate, with its plucked-out eyes and monstrosities that resemble Venom by way of Silent Hill punched through a Beetlejuice hell, but it very rarely, except at a couple of points during the finale, raises the pulse more than a notch.
Lead Asa Buttefield is, as he usually is, competent, and maybe a wet blanket is what the character of Jake demanded, but he doesn’t make for an especially compelling lead (as such, he’s closer to Ewan McGregor in Big Fish, where, like here, the lead is a facilitator for colourful supporting characters to attract all the attention). Everyone else, barring perhaps Rupert Everett, who makes an impression entirely because he has done some very terrible things to himself courtesy of the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (I actually double-took, seeing his name in the opening credits and then mulling sadly whether that really was him, and whether the reason he was wearing those elaborate prostheses would become clear), is stronger.
Eva Green’s good fun, enjoying the opportunity to “go big” for the part, accompanied by a jaunty pipe and ebullient delivery (she’s almost doing a Depp, by way of Julie Andrews, but without nearly as much self-indulgence), but unfortunately there just isn’t enough of her (Miss Peregrine is absent for most of the first and third acts).
Another Burton returnee, Terence Stamp, provides strong emotional grounding as Jake’s grandfather Abe, including what I presume is a digitally-regressed scene as his younger self. Chris O’Dowd is surprisingly decent as the contrastingly emotionally distant dad who’d rather go birdwatching than attend to his son, and the various cast of misfit miscreants, led by Ella Purnell’s Emma and Dinlay MacMillan’s obnoxious Enoch, are memorable. Samuel L Jackson, like Green, is unable to make much of an impact as villain Barron, while Judi Dench is so blink or miss her, you wonder that they didn’t just cast Imelda Staunton and make a saving.
The remote Welsh island setting is suitably enticing, as is the time-slip safety zone of 1943 (albeit reminiscent at points of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who oeuvre, with its gas masks, WWII bombers and time resets), but it’s a picture (I say this, as ever, failing to have read the source material) that doesn’t even attempt to broach many of the issues its narrative conceits raise.
Such as, if Miss Peregrin is resetting the day every day to prevent her and her brood from succumbing to German bombs, aren’t the kids cumulatively living an awfully long time; should their minds not develop over the seventy years of reset days? Likewise, the paradox created at the end, with Abe now surviving, is taken as a fait accompli. I guess with the frequent disregard Back to the Futures and Terminators have for such ramifications, this shouldn’t be surprising, but it rather suggests no one had much interest plot integrity. As such, adding to the list of logical puzzlements, if you knew you had a couple of gorgon twins up your sleeve, who could turn anyone to stone at the merest lifting of their masks, wouldn’t they be your first port of call when threatened by a Hollow or a Wight?
The Nazi element seems to have been rather soft-pedalled, after an early, rather meta- moment when Dr Golan (Allison Janney), as yet unrevealed as the masquerading Barron, persuasively argues that Abe’s tales of an untouched idyll for special youngsters reflect his own wish, as a Jew, to escape the jackboot. (On the issue of soft pedalling, I note also that Burton’s less than judiciously chosen words on the young cast’s lack of ethnic diversity have been self-righteously pounced upon by the hyenas of movie groupthink).
What we’re left with lacks the magical mode of transportation between worlds of, say, a Narnia, or the resonance of a tale with potent subtext. When it comes to the grand climax, set to a rather oddly chosen Blackpool dance anthem as skeletons battle Hollows on the pier, one is left slightly appalled at the complete disintegration of stalwart goth Burton in the face of euphoric cheese.
He does muster up some solid scenes, of course; a sequence where Jake and Ella (her gift being power over air) dive to the wreck of a ship, in which she produces an air pocket (later refloating the entire vessel), clearly ate up most of the budget, and is accordingly effectively visualised. And the ability of Enoch to resurrect the dead is exactly the kind of gruesome trait you could see the Burton of yesteryear embracing and giving to his lead character (the dolls Enoch fashions are somewhat redolent of the Frankenstein patchworks in Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers). Elsewhere, another kid, Hugh (Milo Parker), might induce a fresh round of Izard-esque “I’m covered in bees!” memes. Ironically, the rudely-rushed epilogue, as Jake breathlessly recounts how he zipped through various experiences to arrive back at Emma’s side, exhibits a verve the rest of the picture, far too relaxed and lackadaisical, could have done with.
At this point, provided Michael Keaton still has the inventive energy somewhere inside him, I’d quite like to see that seemingly foresworn Beetlejuice sequel come to pass. Burton needs to re-embrace the inner crazy, rather than the diluted and formulaic, which his last few family entertainments very much have been. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is agreeable but tepid, and even its more ghoulish elements feel process-driven and painlessly palatable.