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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

You stole my car, and you killed my dog!

John Wick (2014)
(SPOILERS) For their directorial debut, ex-stunt guys Chad Stahelski and David Leitch plump for the old reliable “hit man comes out of retirement” plotline, courtesy of screenwriter Derek Kolstad, and throw caution to the wind. The result, John Wick, is one of last year’s geek and critical favourites, a fired up actioner that revels in its genre tropes and captures that elusive lightning in a bottle; a Keanu Reeves movie in which he is perfectly cast.

That said, some of the raves have probably gone slightly overboard. This is effective, silly, and enormous fun in its own hyper-violent way, but Stahelski and Leitch haven’t announced themselves stylistically so much as plastered the screen with ultra-violence and precision choreography. They have a bit of a way to go before they’re masters of their domain, and they most definitely need to stint on their seemingly insatiable appetite for a metalhead soundtrack. This kind of bludgeoning choice serves to undercut the action a…