Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Movie Review: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (2016)



Sometimes, a film comes out where the filmmaker(s) and subject matter match each other that well that you start to question why it’s only now that such a connection was made. On one hand, you have director Tim Burton, a man whom has made a career out of telling stories of pale-skinned outsiders and giving them their rightful place in the world. On the other, we have the modern YA adaptation sub-genre, which has latched onto the public consciousness through teenaged empowerment fantasies of going against the system that wronged them. Add to this screenwriter Jane Goldman, whose work with Matthew Vaughn embodies that same air of acknowledging and celebrating the abnormal, and you have probably the most ideal combination of any film this year… in theory, at least. After all, as much I like Burton, Goldman and some of the higher-profile YA adaptations (I maintain that The Hunger Games is still an amazing film series), none of the above are immune from being rubbish. Last year’s me may argue this point, but I hadn’t yet seen Mars Attacks at that point; this year’s me knows that this guy is capable of making crap. So, even with all the right pieces in place behind the scenes, how does the final product look? This is Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children.


The plot: After the suspicious death of his grandpa (Terence Stamp), Jake (Asa Butterfield) and his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) take a trip to Miss Peregrine’s, an orphanage that grandpa grew up in, to find some answers. There, Jake meets Miss Peregrine herself (Eva Green), who introduces him to the world of the Peculiars, people born with certain unusual traits. However, it seems like Peregrine’s safe haven may not be so safe as the Hollows, creatures that feed on Peculiars, lurk closer in. They must band together to defeat the Hollows, and in particular their leader Mr. Baron (Samuel L. Jackson).

The cast here is mostly just okay with some really good spots. Based on his standout performance last year in X+Y, Butterfield has developed a real knack for portraying mentally different teenagers with untapped potential and he rings true here as the reluctant hero of the story. Green is essentially made entirely out of poise, bringing a very warm and caring vibe to the screen that honestly makes me wish I had a teacher like her back in school. Stamp, who I imagine is in this film only because Vincent Price is no longer with us, is a very welcome presence on screen as he manages to balance out the usual kooky grandpa antics with some real emotional heft. Jackson is a hell of a lot of fun as our villain, and you can clearly see that he is having just as much fun if not more so than we are. O’Dowd is kind of a prick as a father and, despite his own aptitude as the on-screen asshole along with how the character is written, he’s just a bit of a pain to watch here. The actors playing the other Peculiar children are good, with Ella Purnell doing decently as the main love interest, but the best actor of the lot by far is Finlay MacMillan as Enoch. I single him out because his character, a person who can use human body parts to create living puppets, could so damn easily have just devolved into a complete misanthropist… and yet, MacMillan’s performance manages to keep him on this side of sanity, a welcome change from the typical YA rival.

On the technical side of things, this is a bit of an oddity for Tim Burton… again. He’s maintaining the style he showed last year with Big Eyes, in that his dark and morose colour palette is practically non-existent here, instead going for deceptive normality. It’s kind of odd that he would hold back on his typical neo-Gothic sensibilities for a film that is precisely in his wheelhouse, but then again, it’s not the direction that I take issue with. Nor is it with the special effects, which also has some real solid talent behind it by our old friends Double Negative among others. Honestly, this film is pretty much a summary of Tim Burton’s filmography in terms of effects work: Nice-looking stop-motion, very conspicuous looking CGI. The animation for the living puppets is really well done, and while I don’t have all that much issue with the more beastly Hollows, the computer work for them is very obvious. Hell, even the absence of Burton regular Danny Elfman on the soundtrack isn't that big of an issue, as Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson do a good job with the orchestrations here. Also, nice work by Florence And The Machine for the ending song. No, my issue here is with editor Chris Lebenzon, as this is easily the most sloppily edited film I’ve seen all year. The guy has a pretty healthy pedigree, including numerous works with Burton in the past, which is why it’s so confounding that this film feels as stapled together as it does in some scenes. It is insanely distracting how much the plot will just suddenly jolt around with the edits made, bringing out far more unintentional laughs than I would like out of a film that is actually capable of being funny.

Along with his penchant for stories of the loners of our world, and even those of others, Tim Burton has a real liking for stories about how they interact with more “normal” people. This usually goes down the road of showing how those whom are different end up being used and abused by others, from the town’s reaction arc in Edward Scissorhands to the resurrection parlour trick from Beetlejuice. Here, we are given a more literal depiction of that connection with how the Hollows relate to the Peculiars, feeding on parts of them to make themselves stronger. This depiction is made a bit meatier than usual, even for Burton, because Jane Goldman’s script and what I assume is the writing sensibilities of Ransom Riggs in the original text show a very learned understanding of what it is like for those whom are considered abnormal. Specifically, those with certain mental abnormalities. Given the exploitation of certain mental issues that occurred earlier this year (oh, I am not even close to being done with that piece of shit) and this film’s place alongside others over the last couple years that have shown a genuine understanding of what it’s like for these people, this might be Burton’s most potent portrayal of the outsider out of his entire filmography. I say this because not only does he do a great job of depicting said outsiders, but manages to relate to loner teenagers better than any other third-wave YA adaptation that has been released thus far.

Such a shame that the story wrapped around this innate knowledge is a bit of a mess. Now, on the surface, it is perfectly serviceable: Good acting, good pacing (when it isn’t bumbling through its edits), good action. But then we get into the time travel aspects of the narrative, up to and including the time loops that keep the Peculiar children safe, and things start to unravel. Now, the loops on their own show the epitome of this film’s understanding of those on the spectrum: After all, we operate most comfortably within fairly solid routines, something provided by homes like Miss Peregrine’s. The logic behind the time twisting, however, manages to be more difficult to keep up with than Presdestination. For the uninitiated, a film where a man becomes his own mother, father, son, daughter, lover and mentor was chronologically easier to follow than this. That should not be possible for a film meant for mass consumption. With this in mind, the editing makes a little more sense as it’s just about as muddled as the timeline for this film. I know that stories involving time travel aren’t always the easiest to write for, and even the better ones out there still have cracks in their infrastructure, but it simply shouldn’t be this fragmented. It doesn’t help that it presents a fairly interesting aspect of itself, that being the use of several time loops as a means of transportation, right at the arse-end of the film, one in a small-ish list of things that are hurriedly resolved by film’s end.

All in all, beyond the chopped-and-screwed editing and head-tilting depiction of time manipulation, this is a fairly solid film that fits both its sub-genre’s mission statement and its director’s pedigree of story-telling. The acting ranges from decent to really damn good, the action scenes are hella fun and the writing shows a level of understanding of its audience that sets a new bar for YA adaptations to come. I’ll admit that it’s not the easiest sit in the world because of how this film tries to juggle time both in and out of the film’s universe, but I’d honestly say that it’s worth it for the overall picture. I’m ranking higher than You’re Not Thinking Straight as, considering both films were meant to appeal to my demographic, I feel a stronger connection here than with that one. However, due to this film’s rather glaring technical issues, it falls short of the very well-crafted Jungle Book remake.

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