Sunday, October 9, 2016

'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' review

Tim Burton is probably one of the most enigmatic directors in Hollywood, and I'm not talking about the style or content of his films. He just has an incredibly strange filmography, highlighted by some great films and some huge turkeys. In recent years, Burton has been as inconsistent as ever. Big Eyes was a breath of fresh air, Alice in Wonderland remains a terrible big-budget action movie, Dark Shadows was a massive bomb in almost every way, and even though there was clearly love and care put into Frankenweenie, it came off as dull and forced. Long gone are the days where Burton consistently churned out cult favorites like Batman and Edward Scissorhands and critical darlings like Ed Wood. Now, a new Burton film requires a certain amount of guesswork. Will it be great? Will it be a total trainwreck? Who knows anymore, really.

Burton's latest is Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and it definitely looks and feels like a film from the notoriously quirky and kooky director. In fact, I genuinely have a hard time believing that this movie was adapted from a novel. This feels like prime grade Burton, and there's so much material in here that fits right into his wheelhouse. It's almost as if Ransom Riggs (the author of the source material) wrote the book with Burton in mind, designing visuals and writing characters while thinking of what the iconic director could do with the material. And thankfully, there are some moments that are peak Burton in this film, sequences that illuminate his pop art sensibilities and his throwback style. It's just unfortunate that they're stuck in a film that isn't all that good, one that feels boring and sluggish even with all of its......peculiarities. There's some fun to be had with Miss Perergrine, but it's a mildly diverting Burton movie at best, and an inconsistent, convoluted, and tedious mess at worst.

Set in sunny Florida in the modern day, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the story of Jake (Asa Butterfield), a shy teenager with a boring life and a ho-hum job. His shining light in life is his grandfather (Terence Stamp), who tells fantastical stories of a children's home that he lived in during World War II. One day, Jake's grandfather is killed- he finds him in the middle of the woods with his eyes missing. Jake is emotionally traumatized by this, and through several sessions with his therapist (Allison Janney), he realizes that the only way to move on is to take a visit to Wales in the hopes of finding the mystical home. His parents (Kim Dickens and Chris O'Dowd) reluctantly agree, and along with his dad (who only wants to go for the bird watching), Jake heads on a quest to find the children's home.

When he arrives in Wales, things aren't quite as they seem. Jake's dad is disinterested in helping him find the home, even encouraging him to go hang out with the other kids instead of continuing his search. Of course, Jake disobeys him. One day, he enters "The Loop," the mystical force surrounding the home. He goes back in time to 1943, which is where the Peregrine home is permanently located. Confused yet? Just wait. Jake meets Miss Peregrine (Evan Green), who tells him all about the wonderful world of the peculiars. Basically, they live the same September day over and over to avoid a bombing, which happened during the Blitz in World War II. Staying in The Loop also helps them fend off the Holos and Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), an evil peculiar who needs them to redeem his science experiment gone wrong. Along with his grandfather's old friends, Jake will face down Barron, who poses a greater threat than the peculiar world has seen in a long time.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is like a combination of Back to the Future, Harry Potter, and a classic Tim Burton movie. That sounds great on paper, right? It really does. The wacky, time-bending science fiction elements blend well with the school setting and Burton's decorative style, creating a film that is a beauty to behold. Everything about this film is simply sumptuous and delightful, a feast for the eyes and the senses. Colleen Atwood's costume design is excellent, Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is top-notch, the set design is immaculate, and the visual effects work is innovative. I can't say enough good things about how brilliantly designed this movie is. Burton has created a stylish, unconventional piece of work, and I wanted to be drawn into the world of the movie based on the might of the visuals alone.

Wait. Pause. Did you read that synopsis that I wrote? Did that actually make any sense to you? Because I sure didn't understand it. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that as great as Miss Peregrine's Home looks, the story surrounding it is flimsy, convoluted, and just plain nonsensical. The complicated mechanics and logistics of the universe are a constant struggle, but the problems with the story extend much further than that. This is just a tedious sit at times, and as Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman sluggishly moved their way through an endless array of exposition, I just wanted the movie to end. Like many other Hollywood blockbusters, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is clearly and obviously setting up a thousand different sequels and spin-offs. There's so much to set up that the story of the movie is never all that interesting as a standalone.

This issue is caused by a strange clash between the characters, the tone, and the pacing, three aspects of a movie that hold endless importance. For starters, the stakes of this movie are never clear. Barron wants the eyes of the peculiars to maintain his human form. Okay, got it. But as oddly intimidating as Barron is, Jake's chosen one arc feels one-note and bland- he's given an essential power, but he's just not all that interesting of a character. Nobody in this movie is all that interesting or likable really, which means that they amount mostly to a set of cliches and stock characters. The tone is inconsistent as well, flip-flopping between childish and humorous setpieces and gross violence with no real sense of direction. All of this is compounded by the fact that the movie is painfully slow, taking forever to get to the actual story before devolving into a lengthy chain of action scenes. I checked my watch more than I'd like to admit.

Asa Butterfield has been typecast over the years as "offbeat YA kid" and I don't know if he'll ever escape that distinction. He's great in Hugo and fine in Ender's Game, but I was really disappointed by his performance in this film. Butterfield's Jake like a shell of a human being, a sweet character who is never as interesting as one would hope. Jake fits the "fish-out-of-water" trope, but he never seems all that surprised by what's going on around him. It's a strange approach to the character, and Butterfield's delivery of the lines is shaky as well. Eva Green has done great work in bad movies before, but I wasn't a fan of here as Miss Peregrine. Green pumps up the quirk to a new level, and while there's a certain level of emotional connection between Peregrine and her children, it's never as pronounced as it should be. Samuel L. Jackson is the only one who seems to know what kind of movie he's in, while the rest of the kids don't do much of anything at all. Bottom line is that the cast in this one is merely okay. They seem to know that they're in a Tim Burton movie, but none of them really know what that entails.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a visual treat, a movie that proves that Tim Burton still has imagination and filmmaking ability to spare. But for all of its wondrous and strange charms, this hodgepodge of a movie is still severely lacking in the story department. With a plodding narrative, questionable logic, forced universe-building, and a mostly uninteresting cast of characters, Miss Peregrine's Home falls flat. I wanted this to be the wacky, populist return to form for Burton, which would prove that he's still a director who can deliver a unique big blockbuster. Instead, I got another dopey YA movie with only intermittent flashes of imagination. There's still some hope for the Peregrine universe in Burton's hands, but the franchise gets off to a rocky start with this overstuffed, mostly tedious affair. It may be peculiar, but that doesn't mean it isn't dull.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                               (6/10)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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