Saturday, October 1, 2016

Lovecraftian YA: "Miss Peregrine" flawed but delightfully strange and distinctly Burton

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) 
127 min., rated PG-13.

Based on Ransom Riggs’ 2011 novel, itself based on a series of eerie vintage photographs, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” falls right within the gothic, imaginatively kooky wheelhouse of director Tim Burton (2014’s “Big Eyes”). Though it’s not an original property, this horror-fantasy YA hybrid is fanciful and delightfully strange, which is to say that it feels like pure Burton. Adapted by Jane Goldman (2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), the film might not always know what to do with all of its characters, but in taking visual cues from the pen-and-ink illustrations of Edward Gorey, along with the monster design of H.P. Lovecraft, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is impeccably designed without feeling as plastic and soulless as an “Alice in Wonderland.” Young children may not be ready for this one, despite “children” being in the title, but Burton apologists who share his darkly whimsical sensibilities should find it more engaging than most.

Florida teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield) used to lap up the stories his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), would tell him about a special orphanage for peculiar children on a Welsch island of Cairnholm during World War II. Now a little older and wiser, Jake accepts that the stories were fictional, until he finds his grandfather bloodied, having had his eyes gouged out. Abe’s odd final words also involved Jake finding a bird, the loop, and September 1943. Encouraged by his psychiatrist (Allison Janney) to find closure with his grandfather’s death, Jake decides to use the clues from a book Abe left him and travel to Cairnholm with his father (Chris O’Dowd). Once there, Jake finds his way to the orphanage in ruins, until he gets thrown into a time loop, where every day is September 3, 1943, the day before the Germans bombed the abode of headmistress Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green) and her children with peculiarities. None of them age, as they keep happily reliving the same loop, but they all might as well be done for by the invisible, soul-eating Hollows, led by white-eyed shapeshifter Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). It is Jake’s destiny to protect his new family with his own peculiarity.

It isn’t too peculiar that “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is best when sticking to Jake going through a day with Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children. When it comes time to follow a plot, the film becomes too busy and expository for its own good, but Tim Burton still has a way with eccentricity that avoids coming across as mere window dressing. As our conduit, Jake is bland and inexpressive by comparison to everyone else, and unfortunately, Asa Butterfield (who was so full of promise in “Hugo” and “Ender’s Game”) comes off so flat that his presence is merely functional here. He does get himself a love interest in the wide-eyed Ella Purnell, a captivating Emma, who controls air and must wear lead shoes to prevent herself from floating away. The peculiar children are memorable, though with so many of them and only so much time they aren’t all fully realized as characters. The script defines them by their peculiarities, but at least they all become useful in some way by the end. For instance, there is an invisible boy named Millard (Cameron King) and two burlap-masked twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell); Olive (Lauren McCrostie) is a firestarter; Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) can reanimate the dead with animal hearts; Hugh (Milo Parker) is a boy with bees living in his body; and Claire (Raffiella Chapman) hides a toothy second mouth in the back of her head behind blonde ringlets.

Having made hay out of tepid projects with her seductive vampiness and veritable talent (2014’s “300: Rise of an Empire” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”), Eva Green is always one to watch, and as the pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine, she expertly multitasks maternal warmth and enigmatic aloofness. We learn that Miss Peregrine was born an “ymbrine,” who can manipulate time and take the form of a bird, but it’s just too bad she sits out the third act. Relishing in another baddie role after “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” Samuel L. Jackson aims over the top with his hamming as Barron and creates some menace doing it. On the other hand, a treasure trove of talent is criminally squandered. For a spell, Judi Dench wanders in for little reason that some of her work as fellow yumbrine Miss Avocet may have hit the cutting room floor; as her small screen time remains, it’s just a mystery what drew the dame to this bit role. Chris O’Dowd and particularly Kim Dickens are neglected as Jake’s parents. Rupert Everett also shows up, initially unrecognizable as a suspicious ornithologist.

With eyeball-munching entering the equation at some point, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” works as impish entertainment, especially when it’s being downright peculiar. Emma filling a sunken ship with air from her lungs is wondrously executed, while Jake leading Emma on a rope along the beach, as if she were a kite, is a lovely image. The grotesquely amusing sight of Frankenstein’d toys puppet-mastered to life recall the macabre of earlier Burton, as does the creepy concept art of the Hollow monsters. Not to mention, the animal-shaped shrubbery in Miss Peregrine’s courtyard is an instant reminder of “Edward Scissorhands.” The fun and wildly weird climax really sparks to life, though, during a carnival on Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s boardwalk. In a nod to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects with undeniable creativity, Jake and the peculiars use an army of skeletons to battle the Hollows, which are made visible by snowballs and cotton candy. Making sense of the time-loop business won’t satisfy those who hold everything under a microscope, but all of the paradoxical particulars are easier to swallow than the final destination. Screenwriter Jane Goldman reportedly reworked the ending of the novel, and while it’s not a complete deal-breaker, a blissful conclusion seems like a dishonest and icky choice for a story about mortality. Not without reservations, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” does have a sense of melancholy at its core, but even more so, Tim Burton’s distinct stamp and affection for misfits all over it. 


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