77. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Like most people in my age group, I grew up a Tim Burton fan.  He’s always had his own unique brand of filmmaking.  He brought us Beetlejuice.  He put Pee-Wee Herman on the big screen.  He redefined Batman for live-action.  He re-popularized stop-motion animation with his Frankenweenie short and then by producing (not directing) The Nightmare Before Christmas.  And he made Johnny Depp a mainstream star whether we wanted it, or not (most people did).  His movies are almost always instantly recognizable to everyone – hardcore and casual fans alike.  Tim Burton has had a truly legendary career and is one of only a handful of directors who are legitimately household names.

But then something happened.  I’m not going to quite say that he lost his touch as he’s made some quality films in recent years (Big Eyes was pretty darned good, though out of his wheelhouse) but he kind of seemed to get lost in the shuffle of bigger, more high-profile films and filmmakers.  Outside of his two Batman films, Planet of the Apes, and the 2008 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Burton has been less about big-budget spectacle and more about quirky, creepy mood and atmosphere.  And with the industry shifting more towards movies with large scope and safe, four-quadrant appeal, Burton’s smaller, darker films haven’t been getting the attention they once enjoyed.

Perhaps part of the issue is that, while most of his recent projects have maintained the macabre aspects of the work that put him on the map, he seemed to become a bit complacent.  The originality he was so renowned for felt muted.  The visuals weren’t as striking.  The stories weren’t as haunting.  The characters weren’t as memorable.  Burton’s heart seemed to be out of his work.

When I first saw the original trailer for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, my kneejerk reaction was that it looked a lot like old-school, classic Tim Burton.  I got the same vibe that I got from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.  Seeing all of the bizarre visuals, a majestic setting, a sensation of mystery and wonder, and a charismatic star as the face of the project (Eva Green) gave me the distinct impression that the Burton we’ve missed was back!  Other than having heard the title, I was (and still am) unfamiliar with the book series by Ransom Riggs on which the film is based, but I had no doubt that Burton was the one to adapt it to film.

I have to say that the film wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I was in no way disappointed with what I saw.  The visuals and atmosphere that Burton has become so beloved for are present through the majority of the film.  But we don’t start there.  The transition from the chilling opening credits into the first scene of the film, proper, is deliberately both jarring and tongue-in-cheek.  Right off the bat, it’s clear that Burton is having fun, again.  I relaxed immediately.

As mentioned, the character designs are typically (for Burton) unsettling.  But, again in typical Burton fashion, these disturbing visages are often juxtaposed with the endearing characters with which they are paired.  At its core, as odd as this might sound, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is essentially X-Men.  The stories are different, but the core themes, concepts, and structures are nearly identical.  That’s okay, though, as it’s so well-executed with a Tim-Burton flair that most people aren’t even going to notice.  They’ll be too busy being sucked into the world and having a good time.

My two noteworthy issues are pretty short and to the point.  For one, there is a time travel component to the story and the rules of it are never fully explained or explored.  The process just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  It’s not such a big deal that the story shouldn’t be told due to the details being too tough to hammer out, though.  In this case, the ends justify the means.  My second issue is even smaller, and it’s something I’ve mentioned when speaking about other films: the propulsive event takes a long time to get to.  A very long time.  For well over an hour, we’re essentially just hanging out with the characters as they wander throughout their day(s) aimlessly and simply live their lives.  Eventually the event happens that gives the story something to work towards, but I got a little restless waiting for it.

But only a little.  The characters are strong enough that they were fun to hang with until that propulsive event occurred.  And it’s simple: the protagonists are likable and sympathetic while the antagonists are unpleasant and vile.  There are no shades of gray, here, but that fits this particular story.  It’s basically the complement of Edward Scissorhands.  That film was about an extraordinary character adapting to the mundane world; this one is about a seemingly-unremarkable boy being introduced to a fantastical place.  It just works.

Something that really took me by surprise is the climax.  Once the film starts building, it crescendos into a wild, wacky, and inventive conflict where everybody gets to shine and – from the looks of it – have a blast as well.  (I know I did.)  I won’t single anyone on the cast out, but they all hold their own (well, except for Finlay MacMillan, who plays Enoch and utterly fails to convince me that he’s capable of feeling love of any kind) and step up their game when asked.  The collective joy that they seem to be feeling just from starring in this film is infectious and really helps make up for the film’s shortcomings.

Overall, I’m very pleased with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  It’s not going to crack my Top Ten for the year, or anything, but I feel like Tim Burton is back to doing what he does best and – maybe even more importantly – having fun at work, again.  My hope is that this is the beginning of another hot streak for him (creatively, at least, if not financially.  We’ll see how it performs.) and that he can rise back to the top of the industry.  Regardless of what happens in the future, here in the present, I feel like other Burton diehards, and hopefully general audiences alike, will be pleased with Miss Peregrine, as well.

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