Tuesday, October 4, 2016

TIM BURTON'S BEDTIME STORY: a review of "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children"

Based upon the novel by Ransom Riggs
Screenplay Written by Jane Goldman
Directed by Tim Burton
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

As it so often happens as I watch movies, I am reminded of cinematic memories from my past. In the case of this afternoon as I screened "Miss Peregrine's Home  For Peculiar Children," Director Tim Burton's adaptation of the blockbuster Ransom Riggs novel, the tag line from the one-sheet poster of Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" (1981) popped into my head. That line stated: "It's all the dreams you had...and not just the good ones." 

That particular line struck me to my core when I was 12 years old, the age I was when  Gilliam's classic odyssey was originally released, as it did indeed conjure up something primal regarding my own sense of fantasies, daydreams and fears and how Gilliam, with his defiantly askew artistry and aesthetics, would tap into those very malleable inner states contained within those blurred lines of the mundane and the fantastic.

Tim Burton has long proven himself to being one of our most visionary, idiosyncratic and lucrative filmmakers who has magically merged the divides between his deeply personal outlook and populist tastes. Although, for my personal tastes, Burton has released films to varying degrees of success, as his superior gifts with creating spectacular visuals have often outshone his storytelling and for a couple of projects, including his career worst "Planet Of The Apes" (2001) and "Alice In Wonderland" (2010), he has found himself swallowed whole by special effects/CGI overkill fueled by dangerously impersonal corporate interests.

While his output in recent years has been shaky, Burton found himself in the full return of his powers with the wonderful "Big Eyes" (2014) and now with "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children," he has found source material to adapt that feels to be nothing less than tailor made for his talents and proclivities--so much so, that it often feels as if he had created every stitch of this bizarre, enchanting and often very frightening universe, instead of the novel's author and originator. While there are some minor flaws that stopped me from going over the top, Tim Burton's latest fantastical excursions ranks with some of his finest efforts.

As with the original novel, "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" stars Asa Butterfield as Jacob "Jake" Portman, an introverted 16-year-old living out his mundane adolescent life when tragedy suddenly strikes his beloved Grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp), found nearly dying in the dark woods behind his home with his eyes hollowed out with the presence of a shadowy shape-shifting creature nearby that somehow only Jacob is able to view. With his final words, Abraham provides Jacob with confounding clues and instructions which will then fully transform an ordinary life into something powerfully extraordinary...just as extraordinary as the bedtime stories Abraham shared when Jacob was a young child starring all manner of children with amazing abilities and fearsome monsters.

After suffering through post-tragedy nightmares, and undertaking a series of therapy sessions with Dr. Golan (Alison Janney), Jacob's parents (Kim Dickens and Chris O'Dowd), under Dr. Golan's suggestion, decide that a drastic change of scenery would do their son some good. Additionally, on Jacob's birthday, he is given a boo found within my Grandfather's home, a book containing a collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson poems as well as a letter written to his Grandfather from the mysterious Alma Peregrine plus a set of vintage, macabre photographs.

Soon thereafter, Jacob and his Father, Franklin take a trip to a small island in Wales, the location of his Grandfather's childhood. While gathering a lay of the land, Jacob happens upon a dilapidated, abandoned orphanage where he mysteriously becomes acquainted with a collective of bizarre children who have to be seen to be believed.

There is Millard Nullings (Cameron King), an invisible boy who is only seen via the clothing that covers his body. Bronwyn Buntley (Pixie Davies), a small child armed with incredible strength. Hugh Apiston (Milo Parker), a boy with a beehive that lives inside of his stomach. Fiona Frauenfeld (Georgia Pemberton), a girl who communicates and is able to control all plant life. The Masked Twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell), named as such for their unmasked faces can transform any viewers into stone. And finally, and also among other characters, we find the mercurial Enoch O'Connor (Finlay MacMillan) who holds a long standing grudge against Abraham (and now Jacob) and the beautiful Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a girl who is able to control the air itself but must always wear a pair of lead boots, without which she would forever float away into the skies.

Making matters even more spectacular, Jacob now discovers that the orphanage first seen in near complete ruin is now the resplendent Home For Peculiar Children, overseen by the strict yet loving Headmistress Alma Peregrine (a strong and fully captivating Eva Green), an "ymbrine," a figure who possesses the ability to transform into a bird, and in Ms.Peregine's case, a peregrine falcon. The orphanage remains intact solely due to existing within a "time loop," a 24 hour period that repeats daily under Miss Peregrine's directions for as long as time itself. Yet this particular 24 hour period occurred in 1943 during World War II, the day before a bomb destroyed the orphanage, also meaning that Jacob has indeed traveled through time.

To make matter seven more perilous, Miss Peregrine, the Peculiar Children and now Jacob are being perpetually hunted by the horrific, ravenous beings known as The Hollows, enormous, tall figures with a series of tentacles for tongues and who sustain themselves by feasting upon the stolen eyeballs of their victims. Leading the Hollows in none other than the insidious Mr. Barron (a fearsomely unhinged Samuel L. Jackson), whose murderous tendencies and equally madhouse taste for eyeballs fuels his dark quest for ultimate immortality.

With the pursuit and battles between Miss Peregrine and Mr. Barron spilling over into present day 2016 and into an otherwise unsuspecting public at large, it is up to Jacob to not only rescue the Peculiar Children but to also merge the past and the present in order to not only understand the fullness of his Grandfather but to fully realize the potential and gifts within himself.

Much like the stories Abraham spins for his grandson, Tim Burton's "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" feels designed to be presented as a bedtime story...albeit one that will certainly (and delightfully) give you nightmares. Granted, this is not any sort of a horrorshow, But if you can remember the shock of Large Marge in Burton's debut feature film "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" (1984), then I would say that you would have a hint of an idea of the artfully grotesque sights and characters that populate his latest effort.

As previously stated, the film is an absolutely perfect marriage between material and filmmaker as Ransom Riggs' original creations feel fully cut from the same cloth as Burton's past characters and films. The Peculiar Children feel from the same universe as Burton's gallery of misunderstood misfits, most especially the adolescent "Edward Scissorhands" (1990). The tone carries the relentless Brothers Grimm quality of Burton's outstanding "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street" (2007). And surprisingly, we are also given a heartfelt and starkly dramatic family drama merged with tall tales a la Burton's beautiful adult fable "Big Fish" (2003), with its love story between a grandson and Grandfather plus the on-going tensions between Fathers and sons.

To that mix, throw in a dash of Robert Zemeckis' "Back To The Future" trilogy (1985/1989/1990), Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993), Marvel Comics' "Uncanny X-Men," and most definitely Terry  Gilliam's aforementioned "Time Bandits" and even his extravagant "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen" (1989). Add to that combination a spectacular set and costume design, a gorgeous merging of practical, handmade and digital special effects--the film's climax, which features a battle between The Hollow and some skeletons recalls classic Ray Harryhausen a la Don Chaffey's "Jason And The Argonauts" (1963)--stunning and evocative cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel and the twin peaks of Eva Green' simultaneously authoritative and sultry performance and Samuel L. Jackson's ferociously madhouse malevolence, Tim Burton has, at long last, delivered the very sort of fantasy epic that has always been housed inside of himself but has eluded him for far too long. "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" is truly one of his strongest efforts in quite some time.

Even as strong as the film is, there is a major flaw to the proceedings but minor enough to not derail the entire exercise and sadly, that flaw happens to be found within the titular Peculiar Children--although not as characters but as actors. Most certainly, Tim Burton has demonstrated great affection and empathy for Jacob, Miss Peregrine and her band of beautiful freaks and geeks so much so, that it would not be terribly far fetched to think of this film as somewhat serving as an allegory for any child who possesses special needs or is differently abled, as they attempt to navigate their respective ways through a world that is indifferent at best and cruelly harsh and unforgiving at worst. That said, I had some serious issues with Asa Butterfield and the bulk of the younger cast members regarding their performances. They all certainly looked the part but they also seemed to be quite stiff, wooden and possessed a lack of depth to their acting, that they did keep me somewhat at arms length when I should have been even more engaged, especially considering the emotional complexities and grand scope of the story plus having to keep up with the likes of Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson.

Additionally, Tim Burton has historically had problems with keeping control of his stories, especially once they tend to reach their final thirds, when special effects tend to take over and story elements and plot points feel truncated or even forgotten. In the case of "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children," what felt to be so sadly lost was the relationship between Jacob and his Father, one that is fraught with back-and-forth tensions, plus a very adult inner trauma for Franklin, who is coping with a troubled marriage and failed artistic aspirations as a writer in addition to parenting Jacob, whom he fears is becoming increasingly psychologically unbalanced as well as mourning the death of his own Father, Abraham, despite their difficult relationship. All of these pieces are integral to the entire story as a whole and somehow, someway, Franklin is all but abandoned as the film flies to its epic conclusion--an area that would have indeed given the film a greater emotional and conceptual culmination. But maybe there's more to these themes in the books than the film itself depicted...

I actually have not read Ransom Riggs' series, most likely because I wondered if it was just some sort of Harry Potter catch-up/cash in. Now having seen the film version, it is easy to differentiate between the two series so much so that I am now intrigued to read it for myself--something I feel could not be even greater praise for Tim Burton to receive in this case, to inspire people to keep reading!!! Since I have not read the books, I am not able to speak to how faithful or unfaithful the film version is compared to Riggs' novels. But as I have always said, books are books and movies are movies and this is Tim Burton's interpretation of Ransom Riggs' novels and it should be experienced as such.

Tim Burton's "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" is a Gothic fantasy of family secrets, time travel and the journey into the world that exists inside of the shadows that creep across the floors and walls at night. It is a film that again proves why Tim Burton has remained such an idiosyncratic and iconic creative force for over 30 years and this film in particular shows that he still has a vast collection of playfully sinister tricks and treats up his cinematic sleeves...and just in time for Halloween season to boot.

"Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" is indeed all of the dreams you've had as a child. Most definitely, the bad ones.

Your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast has a strong word of caution for those of you who happen to be parents of small children or parents of slightly older but more sensitive viewers, to not take your children to view this film. It is rated PG 13 but even moreso, it feels that the tenor of the story and characters has allowed Tim Burton to engage with his darker creative side more openly and to an artistically grotesque effect, especially considering the nature and look of The Hollows and Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Barron, who is truly the film relentless "boogeyman."  

While the film is essentially blood free regarding its violence, Burton takes a more dream and definitely nightmare approach to the material, which features villains--Jackson's Mr. Barron in particular--with piercingly white eyes, are shapeshifters who can assume any form, including benevolent figures, and whose only goal is to remain in constant pursuit of these strange children and are only satisfied once they have been caught, murdered and their eyeballs are eaten--some of which is grandly visualized.

There were images that gave me considerable pause often throughout this film and I am a full grown adult who possesses full knowledge of how films are made and the nature of performance and special effects. By contrast, small children do not possess those qualities and these images could be more than overwhelming and frightening on a huge movie screen.

Tread lightly....

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