Vintage Era X-Men
The central idea behind Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Lord that’s a mouthful) was easily sold to me: an ordinary boy finds himself in a time loop that houses and protects children with supernatural and extraordinary abilities from twisted monstrosities. Sounded like my cup of tea until I heard it was being directed by Tim Burton. Now up front, I haven’t like a Burton film since Big Fish (over a decade ago and I didn’t see his praised Big Eyes), so I was very curious to see how this went. Well Burton managed to do more right here than he’s done wrong but…
Alright so you got Asa Butterfield (from Ender’s Game) as Jake who witnesses the death of his grandfather (Terence Stamp) who had his eyes sucked out. With his dying breath, the grandpa tells Jake to find the island he once told the boy stories about when he was just a kid to locate Miss Peregrine and discover the truth about his own past. Convincing his neglectful father that it would be good for psychological closure (somehow) Jake finds Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and all the odd superhuman children under her care. But he also discovers that his grandfather was killed by a Slender Man knockoff (more on that later) and these monsters are actively coming right for them.
Like I said, the premise sounds perfect but just that the film is held back in some key areas. Let me offer some praise before a paddling session begins, because some of the monster designs and costume work is simply entertaining to watch. You get full on bizarro, stop motion scenes with skeletons fighting frightening abominations with tentacles sprouting out from a sharp tooth mouth. You have kids with fucked up apendages and abilities. Combine that with the set design that’s gorgeous, and you’ve got some solid world building that seems fascinating.
The film feels like a young adult story done correctly (more or less), where a teenager discovers a special ability they have and team up with other kids to fight monstrous adults out to kill them. The difference between the boring ass shit we’ve seen in the past year and this movie is that the film adds as much as style as possible, courtesy of Tim Burton, while trying to add as much emotional core as possible. It doesn’t stick the landing, but I can at least appreciate the effort.
The problem with the characters is that your main teenage leads act in very stilted, awkard ways. Now some want to chalk this up to inexperience on the kids’ part, but Asa Butterfield has been acting in big productions since Hugo, so he’s got no excuse. He’s weirdly bad in this, failing to emote to the appropriate situation when his character is in danger and not really selling us on his romance with the blonde girl. But when I saw the other kids act in the film, I have the strong feeling that Burton was deliberately having them act in this way. For some characters it makes sense that they act in curiously odd ways, but not for your main character. He’s a sixteen year old from the year 2016 talking to kids who have had been experiencing the same exact day for over 70 years, and he’s acting stranger than the girl who’s such a lightweight that she needs to be anchored by lead shoes.
Ah yes, I should probably get into the time travel shenanigans. Now normally, if the characters are super strong and I’m given a quick throwaway line like this magnificent scene in Looper, I can forgive the effects of time paradoxes. However, this movie spends a solid 20 minutes discussing the mechanics of living in the time loop while acknowledging they are jumping to and from different time loops. Coupled with the fact that an emotional high point between two characters depends on understanding how these time loops work, it just makes for a distracting experience because I spent considerably way more time figuring out how the hell this works without focusing too much on the character relationships.
That turns out to be the most critical problem with the film, juggling exposition with character development and sadly favoring the former. This is most noticeable in the really slow first act which spends WAY too much time setting up this world, that the emotional gut punch of finally seeing this absurd and magical world doesn’t carry the weight it should have done. And the angsty teen drama looks like it was cut severely in the editing room, because I was actively wondering why some characters behaved in a certain way and it really felt like we were missing an additional 20 minutes of film that helped flesh out these characters. Now you KNOW it’s a weird fucking day when I’m asking for MORE angsty teen drama, because the kids (despite their stilted dialogue) made we want to know more about them.
Oddly, the adults in the film have more than abundant time on screen and definitely command the film when the camera’s on them. Eva Green in particular is freaking amazing as the headmistress of this knockoff X-Men team, and her mix of excited politeness with cold-blooded ruthlessness makes for a picture perfect character that I wanted to spend more time with (and not just because it’s Eva Green…although it helps). It’s even funnier because she’s primarily around to deliver exposition, but her delivery is what makes all the difference. It reminds me of establishing of how magic worked in the Harry Potter films in all the right ways: in service to a story, fleshing out a character, and making you more interested in what else is possible in this world. All of this elevates her above a Professor X-type character…and hell she does a better job in the role than the real one.
However, I have to admit that Samuel L. Jackson takes the MVP award here because he’s having so much goddamn fun. For starters, his makeup is fucking terrifying and walks around like a smiling, cackling villain. Unlike last week’s The Magnificent Seven, which had a baffling cartoonish villain in a realistic world; Jackson’s over-the-top character feels right at home in Burton’s nu-Gothic setting. He taunts the main heroes in increasingly amusing ways, walks around like Jim Carey in The Mask, and kept me smiling the whole way through even though he looks like something that would have given me nightmares as a kid. Oh yeah, and when you find out what Jackson’s end game is…without wishing to spoil: it’s delightfully macabre, straight out of the nightmares of several kids.
I think that’s why I think younger audiences are definitely going to get a kick out of this, especially since the monsters will have a stronger effect on them. My one critique about these creatures is, as previously mentioned, that the big monsters look like Slender Man knockoffs. While there’s a bit more details on these creatures than Slendy, it’s especially jarring when you see that the computer generated effects with these monsters looks noticeably poorer than other monsters in the film that look like they were made using Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation. The latter monsters look way better and have much more fluid animation than the CGI cockups.
This movie is an odd beast. Overall I liked the film, but it’s got some problems to it. However, all my critiques are countered by other inversely good parts that I enjoyed. The rushed character development is balanced by memorable performances by thespians I love, the poor CGI in some areas appears opposite visually interesting stop motion animation, and the common pitfalls of the YA genres are forgotten in the face of a decent (if somewhat clumsy) world building. You might want to check this one in theaters, but you’d likely get more enjoyment out of it by paying for it as a…