Film Review: MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
Starring Asa Butterfield, Terence Stamp, Eva Green, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Pixie Davies, Georgia Pemberton, Raffiella Chapman, Milo Parker, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Cameron King, Thomas and Joseph Odwell, Judi Dench, Allison Janney, Ella Purnell, Chris O’Dowd, Rupert Everett, Ella Purnell, Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Jane Goldman
Based on the book by Ransom Riggs
Produced by Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping
Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel
Edited by Chris Lebenzon
Music by Mike Higham
Tim Burton’s quirky, inventive, unique and highly-original film version of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” based on the hugely-popular 2011 book of the same name by Ransom Riggs, is notable—and highly-recommended—for several interesting reasons: 1. The film continues 2016’s winning streak of excellent fantasy films, including, but not confined entirely to, “The BFG,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Jungle Book,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” and “Ghostbusters;” 2. The film is simply Tim Burton’s best movie in years; 3. The film—in a most welcome, gratifying manner—recalls Burton’s best, most visionary and distinctive period, his batch of wonderfully quirky and unique movies during the literal first part of his career (“Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”); 4. The movie has a cast that is mostly comprised of child actors who act extremely well and exude charisma, presence and talent without being cloying or overly sentimental; 5. The movie has familiar elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror (light, children’s-fairy-tale-horror and kid-oriented horror—assuredly, no graphic blood or guts or gore) that may appear familiar on the surface, but due to Burton’s singularly unique vision and style, these aspects manage to come across as entirely unique and original; 6. Like any above-average modern-day fantasy, science-fiction or horror film, there are tons of special effects, computer-generated effects, make-up effects and fancy cinematic technological smoke-and-mirror tricks, but all of these well-produced effects complement and integrate well with the story at hand and they do not distract from the story, characters, plot or these respective filmic aspects’ development and storytelling; and 7. The film, scheduled to be released on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, is the perfect fantasy-sci-fi-horror film for the upcoming Halloween season, which traditionally starts during the first weekend of October—conveniently, the film’s opening weekend!
All of which combine together to present “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” as one of the better fantasy films of 2016, and a highly-recommended film not only for Burton fans or fantasy-sci-fi-horror fans, but for all filmgoers who crave a quirky, inventive and original time at the movies.
“Miss Peregrine’s” also manages to subtly deliver a heartfelt, honest and touching theme, message and lesson—wholly welcome and deserved in 2016, as it is in any year, for that matter—that all people need to honor and respect all other people who just happen to be just a tad different, unconventional, eccentric, or, to note the word right there in the title of the book and film, peculiar. Actually, in stark reality that many people don’t want to acknowledge, every single person on this planet is peculiar in some way, but too many people tend to hide their peculiarities, run from them, deny them, hide from them, shield them, not talk about them—or, psychologically, pretend they don’t exist. You’re fooling yourself, of course, if you deny your peculiarities and deny the peculiarities of other people, and you’re only making things worse by indulging in such selfish, dishonest and, often, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or homophobic behavior. “Miss Peregrine’s” delivers an important message that, although some folks may indeed appear to be different or peculiar, deep down, in their hearts, minds and souls, they are no different in most ways from anyone else, and they deserve the same respect as anyone else. That’s an important message for an entertaining fantasy film, and Burton and his cast and crew manage to deliver this message in a subtle, underhanded manner that comes across not through clichéd or eye-rolling sermons or lengthy speeches or lectures, but through the story, the plot, the characters’ personalities, the actions of the characters, and the overall filmic journey. The film is satisfying in the message area, too, but it’s delivered in such an underhanded manner, filmgoers may not realize that a message was delivered until later, which is sometimes a good manner to deliver a message.
The film tells a story that centers around modern-day Jake Portman (a grounded, understated, always-watchable Asa Butterfield), 16, a laid-back, nice, likeable teen who goes about his business in life, somewhat hampered by a somewhat-wayward father and mother but equally bolstered and encouraged by a young-thinking, misunderstood and somewhat-magical grandfather, Abraham Portman (a wonderful Terence Stamp, who, like he often does, masters and controls every scene that he is in), who fills Jake’s mind with wondrous, joyful, fascinating tales of a lost land, with lost people, and their possible connection to Abraham’s and Jake’s real lives. Of course—much like the dunderheaded parents in the similarly excellent 2016 version of “Pete’s Dragon”—Jake’s parents tend to dismiss Abraham’s stories as over-imaginative ravings—much like the tales told by Robert Redford’s grandfather in “Pete’s Dragon.” In both films, Abraham and Redford’s characters are likeable, lovable even, elder statesmen who cry wolf—and no one believes them except the kids. This is always a nice device, and it works well in both films. Eventually, circumstances occur that force Jake to take Abraham’s stories—and warnings about possible dire consequences—seriously.
Thus, Jake goes on a truly fantastical, magical journey through time—literally time-traveling, another familiar element treated with originality and respect in this film, much like time travel was used in an equally effective manner in 2016’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” itself a sequel to Burton’s hugely successful “Alice in Wonderland”—and Jake, with Abraham’s help, finds himself in a distant land at, well, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children! It is there that Jake learns that his destiny and Abraham’s destiny are closed tied to the destinies of the home’s residents, a collection of lovable—yes, lovable—children with various, interesting—and quite peculiar talents, skills and abilities. It would be a spoiler to reveal the adorable kids’ unique traits, but they are unique, as presented in this film, and the kids are presented as approachable, smart and grounded kids who do not abuse their abilities, but learn to live with them—with much thanks to the motherly, caring and protective leadership, guidance, education and parenting of the also-lovable Miss Peregrine, played with a combination of sternness, toughness, fantasy, humor and sentiment by the wonderful Eva Green, who fills the screen with beauty, presence, likeability, mystery and intelligence. Her performance, along with Stamp’s and Butterfield’s, helps anchor the film solidly and impressively. But they are also always complemented by the kids who play the Peculiars.
The actors playing the children at the home act and deliver their lines and action in a welcome controlled manner, and characters are also grounded and smart and in-control—with the exception of one jealous, somewhat hot-headed teen male character, who is still smart and caring at his care—and the children, known as Peculiars, know just when and how to use their particular peculiarities. It is this constraint and intelligence in the child characters that make them so lovable.
“They just discover some creative uses for their abilities in certain situations,” says executive producer Derek Frey, in the studio’s production notes.
“These children would be seen as freaks and would be persecuted in the outside world,” notes Green, who so beautifully plays Miss Peregrine. “In the remote island where they live and thrive, their ‘strangeness’ is celebrated as something special and beautiful.”
Of course, what better director to direct a film with these ideas, ideals and messages than Tim Burton, who was treated differently when he was a kid; who has always been seen by some folks as somewhat of an outsider, even though he’s a hugely successful, high-grossing, powerful film director, producer and writer; who can present unique and different visions on screen; and whose sense of magic, wonder and imagination perfectly match the fantastical world of the book and film.
“As a child you never really forget those feelings of being different,” Burton told the studio. “They stay with you forever. I was branded as being ‘peculiar’ because as a child I loved monster movies. So you go through things like that in your childhood and sometimes even later in life. There are a lot of people out there who feel that way.”
As the studio officials wisely note in the film’s production notes, “in today’s social media-obsessed world, “staying peculiar” is particularly challenging.” Says Ella Purnell, who portrays Emma, who is one of the Peculiars, is a lead character in the story and is a young woman who can control air: “We’re all surrounded by Twitter and Instagram and other kinds of social media, which make it so easy to compare yourself with others, and to think you’re not good enough or that you don’t belong. But what we should be celebrating is what makes you, you.”
What a great group of messages from the filmmakers regarding the film. Their simple, yet perceptive and insightful, statements, do well to sum up the messages of the film.
“Family comes in all shapes and sizes—and peculiarities,” says Jenno Topping, who produced the film alongside Peter Chernin. “Jake comes to learn that his true family is the Peculiars, with whom he feels an enormous affinity.”
As Jake befriends Miss Peregrine and the Peculiars, he also learns that his newfound family is in danger with frightening, scary, spooky and dark elements and creatures in the world, and he learns that he must fight for and with his new family of friends—for his own sake, for his grandfather’s sake and for the sake of Miss Peregrine and the children. Thus, Jake, Miss Peregrine and the Peculiars embark on an epic fight, through time, space and lands, to fight these monsters, who threaten not only Miss Peregine and the children, but possibly all life itself on the planet. Jake, Miss Peregrine and the kids fight with guts, strength, ingenuity, creativity—and with plenty of humor. Another likeable aspect of the film is that, for once, a group of heroes is shown working and fighting together generally without that annoying attendant aspect of infighting or inner-group squabbles that is shown in other films that feature heroic ensembles—except for one kids’ teenage jealousy and rage. But even that character’s rage is understandable, as Jake presents a new challenge for the hand of the beautiful, captivating Emma, played also with an air—pun intended, as her character is lighter than air and must always be weighted down—of understated graciousness. You can even understand how teenage guys would butt heads over the pretty and tender Emma.
Asa Butterfield, who memorably starred in Martin Scorsese’s equally excellent and fantastical “Hugo” (2011) as the title character, is an interesting actor—he plays his roles in such an understated, normal-like, approachable and down-to-earth manner, he’s one of those actors whose techniques are not readily apparent, overdone, overly cutesy or overly dependent on good looks—because he is a good-looking kid! He simply acts in a steady, grounded way that presents the character—in “Hugo” and in “Miss Peregrine’s—as he should be presented—a normal kid caught up in abnormal circumstances. When you have presence, charisma, good looks and acting talent, and the script doesn’t necessarily require anything outlandish or crazy on the part of your character, sometimes simply just being a normal kid or teenager is all that your characterization and presentation requires, and that is exactly what Butterfield expertly delivers in “Miss Peregrines”—a normal teenage caught up in fantastical, peculiar situations.
Interestingly, the rest of “Miss Peregrine’s” cast performs in a similarly grounded, understated manner—except for Samuel L. Jackson’s evil, dark, creepy villain, Mr. Barron, who is the leader of the Wights and the Hollows, the creatures who are out to destroy the Peculiars and Miss Peregrine. Jackson goes over the top here and there—but appropriately so. His character is the villain, and it’s just for a villain in a fantasy to go over the top. Jackson bugs his eyes out, delivers some lines with camp, broadens his body and waves his arms, all the while creepily smiling and howling and vamping—as it should be. That over-the-top villainous presentations stands out in contrast to the lovability of the kids, Jake and Miss Peregrine. The contrast works, as the kids, despite their peculiarities, represent all that is good, and Jackson and his demons, creatures and ghouls aptly represent all that is bad. The contrasting performances work well. The kids, to their credit, stay grounded and never over-act, despite their characters’ respective special qualities, and it’s a testament to their acting and Burton’s direction that a large group of children deliver such quality performances in this big-budget film.
Then there’s vets like Butterfield (an acting veteran at 19, as he’s been acting since he was 9 years old); Stamp; Green; and the great Judi Dench, all of whom are excellent in this film and add their own distinctive attributes to the movie. Butterfield, as noted, is cool, calm, normal and understated, as his character should be. Green, as noted, combines a mixture of emotions and feelings to portray the mysterious, tough and motherly Miss Peregrine. And then there’s Stamp and Dench, reliable, quality, immensely talented veterans who can anchor and dominate and subtly steal every scene they are in. And, along with everyone else (except Jackson), they act with an understated charm, graciousness, class and style in the movie, quietly complementing the youthfulness and energy of their much-younger castmates. Terence Stamp is 78 and Judi Dench is 81, but when they appear in films like this, appear so young and youthful and lovable, and, again, quietly anchor modern-day films alongside younger actors, ages do not matter—age is but a number. Stamp and Dench—much like many of their contemporaries who have been similarly cast in youthful modern-day films such as the “Harry Potter,” “Hunger Games,” and Marvel or D.C. superhero films—are eternally youthful on screen to this day, and it’s encouraging to see them and others from their generation in these films. As noted, actors such as Stamp, Dench, Michael Douglas in “Ant-Man,” Maggie Smith and Richard Harris and Alan Rickman in the “Potter films” and even Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in the new “Star Wars” film provide a much-needed veteran air of experience, knowledge, endurance and vitality.
As Jake, Miss Peregrine, Emma and the various Peculiars come together, become more heroic and become closer, tighter and increasingly more of a family in their fight against Mr. Barron, the Wights and the Hollows, their chemistry—as characters and as actors—increases, and it’s wonderful to see the group become a stronger family. Jake learns that these people are his extended family, there is indeed more to life than normal normalcy, and that he is indeed, in many ways, simply another Peculiar, in another manner. This self-realization, his blossoming love interest in Emma, his increasing independence, and his increasing love and respect for Abraham—which was already strong to start with—show a well-constructed character development for Jake, as the story and plot concurrently develop in similarly strong ways. Thus, “Miss Peregrine’s” becomes a film about self-discovery, about learning and progressing in life, and about coming of age in a respectful, non-tragic, even heroic manner—again, much like the stories in the similar fantasies “Pete’s Dragon,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The BFG” and “Hugo.”
Burton says Butterfield was right for the role because the young actor “has a special kind of sensitivity, and he’s a thinker. You could easily envision Asa being a Peculiar. He brings gravity to the role, like he’s always discovering something. Asa really conveys that Jake is going through what a lot of teens experience,” according to the studio production notes. “There’s no faking it with Asa,” Burton adds. “He’s a lovely, soulful persona and actor.”
Special kudos and congrats need to go out to the cast of young actors who play the Peculiars–Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Pixie Davies, Georgia Pemberton, Raffiella Chapman, Milo Parker, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Cameron King, and twins Thomas and Joseph Odwell. All of these young actors shine, and are exceptional amid exceptional circumstances.
Among those exceptional, praiseworthy circumstances are the aforementioned myriad special effects, along with wonderful, wondrous production design, costuming, make-up and set design. Again, all of these elements are produced and presented in unique, distinctive vision and voice that recalls the early Tim Burton. There are even traces of early Burtonesque-style images—homage-style, or perhaps just extensions of previous ideas–from “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” scattered throughout “Miss Peregrine’s,” but these styles and filmic aspects are not rip-offs, unoriginal or retreads—it’s simply a welcome collection on Burton-style images that represent his unique vision. Some directors, of course, just have their own catalogue and library of ideas sprung solely from the deeper recesses of their own imaginations, and if they’re good, and they appear in that director’s films in an original manner, than that’s only a good thing.
As “Miss Peregrine’s” progresses, the tension and suspense build to an equally scary, funny, suspenseful and satisfying third act battle set against nothing less than an old-fashioned array of boardwalk-, fair-, amusement park- and carnival-style attractions, rides, games and buildings—naturally. And, naturally, one of those attractions during the climatic good-versus-evil fight is an old-fashioned county fair and carnival fun house. And whether that’s overly apparent in its symbolism, or not, it doesn’t matter, for the presence late in the film of a fair and carnival fun house does appropriately stand as a symbol of what “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” does end up being at its core: fun.
“This will be a feast and a very emotional experience,” says Topping, about the film, to the studio. “The film says be yourself and embrace your uniqueness, as well as the original and peculiar in everyone.”
“Fans are going to get a no-holds-barred ‘Miss Peregrine’ experience,” adds Derek Frey, Burton’s longtime collaborator at Tim Burton Productions. “It’s a full rendering of that story.”
Perhaps no one is more pleased with that rendering than its original architect, according to the studio. “As someone who grew up loving Tim’s movies, it was so exciting to me that he was interested in my book,” says Riggs. “I said to myself, ‘Okay, well, this is genius. Tim is perfect for the material, and he’s going to make it all his own.’ I love where he went with the film.”
One of the mottos of the book and film is “stay peculiar.” And as everyone learns in life, sometimes, it’s just fine to be a little peculiar. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” celebrates this complex, yet simple, understanding of life, and it’s a great, lasting lesson to take to heart after seeing this original, entertaining film.