People are saying that Tim Burton’s latest isn’t as good as much of his earlier work and they are right. However if you look at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children with fresh eyes you realise that it is exactly the kind of film it needs to be for a contemporary audience. It is a movie that sits nicely alongside the other teen focused adventure flicks that are around right now but does something different and quirky that sets it apart from the crowd. It was precisely the same with Edward Scissorhands twenty six years ago. There was no one else putting out mainstream releases quite like Burton’s in the 80s and 90s and even though we have The Hunger Games and Harry Potter now, the same is equally true. Miss Peregrine may not have the imagination of Beetlejuice, the gothic style of Batman, the gently surreal nuances of Ed Wood, the mania of Mars Attacks or the darkness of Sleepy Hollow but it is as creepy, as enthralling, as discomforting and as weird as anything he’s ever done before. This is what a Tim Burton film should look like in 2016 and it works for the 15 to 24s, who remain the largest group of cinema goers, just as well as those other films did in their day.
As is entirely in keeping with the all of the fantasy youth adventures doing the rounds right now, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is adapted from a series of books. (It looks like it is all getting set up for a sequel at the end but thankfully wraps things up neatly in its closing minutes.)
The story centres round young Jake whose standard suburban Florida life is disrupted when his sage but mysterious grandfather is killed by vicious eye stealing monsters. (Eyeballs are as liberally gouged out in this film as heads were lopped off in Sleepy Hollow.) Understandably ending up in therapy it is suggested that the best thing to help the boy get over the trauma is for him to take a trip to Wales to visit the children’s home that his grandfather had once stayed in, had spoken of so fondly and had actually told Jake to go to with his dying words. Once in Wales Jake discovers that the building had actually been destroyed by a German bomb in 1943 but through a magic time loop soon ends up visiting the home the day before this actually happens. As if this wasn’t odd enough (Jake does take it all in his stride surprisingly well) it turns out the residents of the home all have X-Men style superpowers as well.
The children’s ‘peculiarities’ do lead to some wonderful images and sequences and it is here that the movie’s director gets to show off his panache. Of course Burton is also known for nightmarish images and he gets to exercise these skills when the ghouls that murdered grandpa come looking for his old friends. In these moments the film is actually quite nasty and while you get used to the sight of the beasts and their particular method of dispatching their victims it is initially quite shocking. The two teenagers I went to see it with spent some time watching events roll out while sunk down in their seats with their hands in front of their faces. It is no surprise that the children eventually rise up and defend themselves against these attackers using their own individual set of talents and this is exciting when it comes. Crucially though, they are still kids battling experienced killers and at no point do they suddenly develop preternatural fighting skills to go with their other the preternatural abilities. It isn’t like the furniture inexplicably seeing off the lynch mob in Beauty and the Beast. (I mean, darn! That whole movie is just so unrealistic.)
The cast are all good. This is one of only eight out of eighteen Burton helmed films that doesn’t feature either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter (five of them have both) but it really doesn’t miss them. Bonham Carter’s part, the titular carer, is played by Eva Green and she is undoubtedly the star of the film. The quirky appearance and mannerisms the French actor can summon up are well suited to Tim Burton and this isn’t the first and won’t be the last film she does with him. Miss Peregrine has a perfect mix of benevolence and unforced remorselessness and if the movie does get a sequel it will be worth it to meet her again. Depp, on the other hand, would probably have played the bad guy in this film and bored as I now am with the man’s off centre characterisations I think he would have ruined it. (I’d actually have loved to have seen him in the bland unbelieving Dad role. He could have dialled it back and done that quite well.) As it is we get a gurning Samuel L. Jackson instead and his gentlemanly menace plays well enough, certainly better than it did in Kingsman.
Following on from Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Terence Stamp is the next Hollywood legend to play the experienced elder statesmen for Burton and it is nice to see him in a big release again. Among the children twenty year old Ella Purnell stands out as a girl who manipulates air but all the youngsters are good. You might recognise Milo Parker, whose character has bees living inside him, as he was last seen getting killed by bees in Ian McKellen’s Mr Holmes. (Yeah, yeah, spoiler. You’ve had time.) Asa Butterfield plays the film’s hero and is possibly the blandest of the central cast. He has the tricky straight man role but Butterfield has been better in things like Hugo, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and X+Y so I feel Burton could have done more with him. Judi Dench, Rupert Everett and Allison Janney also appear.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t ultimately a very surprising film which does set it apart from Tim Burton’s best movies but it tells a fun story and doesn’t compromise on the nastiness. It is well acted and well crafted, the story’s progression from prefabricated twenty first century America to contrasting old fashioned 1940s Blackpool via the somewhere between the two modern day Wales works well and it gives you both an adventure and a set of characters you can care about. It might only be Burton’s twelfth best film but that’s still better than a lot of stuff being shown in cinemas right now.
The Ripley Factor:
The title character is female but the lead is male which works as this is actually a very gender balanced film and most of the characters are strong irrelevant of their sex. This type of equality is actually another thing that is typical of this director. Don’t forget that this is the guy that gave us a Catwoman that was properly sexy without being objectified This isn’t a feminist piece like Alice in Wonderland but women are represented really well.
Is this one for the kids?
As suggested there are elements of the film that are genuinely scary and gross. It is a 12A and I would not recommend taking anyone younger than the certificate suggests. It is the right rating, it certainly doesn’t need to be a 15, but you may even want to think about letting very young teenagers see it if they might be sensitive to this sort of thing. My daughters were a little unnerved by it at the time but they really liked the film and it didn’t cause them any lasting concern.