Skip to main content

Peculiars have been persecuted through the ages. Hence we live in places like these.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
(2016)

(SPOILERS) 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 an 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 70 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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.