Film, Reviews, Screen

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children movie review

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Many city blocks and many more brain cells have been destroyed this year in the name of superheros. They’ve been a deflating bunch of titles, from the choking heavy-handedness of Batman v Superman to the day-glo chaos of Suicide Squad. But if blockbuster comic book movies are delivering brain-challenged excursions for teenagers, the family film genre is chugging along just fine. In fact it’s been a strong year.

Zootopia, The Jungle Book and The BFG are prized possessions in the 2016 trophy room: very smart, very memorable films destined for longevity. Others – Pete’s Dragon and Finding Dory come to mind – at the very least retain big broad messages (home is where the heart is, family is more than blood etc) without reducing them to Happy Meal style take-out boxes.

I’m not sure what the message is – big, broad or otherwise – in Tim Burton’s new slice of gothic, steampunk, insert-description-of-quirky-fantasy-here flick Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. But hot damn, is this a movie brimming with spirit and invention. It’s a bit Stranger Things-esque, in the sense Miss Peregrine breathes a sort of nostalgic monster mash air. The kind of screenplay (by Jane Goldman, adapting Ransom Riggs’ best-selling novel) likely to have been embraced by Joe Dante or John Landis.

Tim Burton tends to direct zany with a capital Z, and here is totally in his element. Not just because the source material offers certain Burton-isms (creepy kids, creepier villains, wacky settings and so forth) but because it actually stretches and challenges him. The story’s unpredictable propensity to expand its own fantastical parameters, and the sense of anarchy that comes with that, keeps him on his feet – as if Burton is forever trying to keep up with his own movie.

On a journey to research the bedtime tales of his grandfather – a premise vaguely reminiscent of Burton’s 2003 film Big Fish – 16-year-old Jacob (Asa Butterfield) and his father (Chris O’Dowd) arrive at Cairnholm, a mysterious Welsh island. There, when dad is asleep or otherwise occupied, Jacob discovers the titular orphanage, where Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) is matriarch to a bunch of special children or “peculiars”.

The place resides in a time warp circa 1943, which offers its inhabitants protection from the wider world. Every night the house, which looks like something out of a James Whale film, gets bombed by Nazis. And every night Peregrine, whose special gift is manipulating time, rewinds the clock to prevent it from happening. When we see this it’s a helluva scene: the kids stand outside wearing gas masks, watching a bomb fall towards the building before Peregrine reverses time and the bomb goes back up into the guts of the plane.

The motley bunch of kids are a colourful if conspicuously white-bread lot, with hints of The Addams Family. There’s a love interest in beautiful big-eyed Emma (Ella Purnell) who wears shoes attached with weights to stop her from flying away. And there’s a bad guy in Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), leader of the Wights – undead human-like creatures who hunt and kill peculiars. One of his henchmen is a dead ringer for Matt Preston; see if you can spot him.

Asa Butterfield, of Hugo and Ender’s Game fame, is a mannered, calming, jellybean of a fellow. A largely nondescript vision of teen boydom, to offset the wackiness of his peers. Eva Green is a good fit for the young adult demographic: sexless, plucky and vaguely mother or aunt-like, though I wonder if an older actor would have given Peregrine more gravitas. Samuel L. Jackson’s outrageous eye-popping performance, increasingly used for comedic purposes, takes cues from Christopher Lloyd in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 

You don’t hear the words “the magic of Tim Burton” much anymore, but here’s a film that gives the label renewed currency. The visual flourishes and set pieces in Miss Peregrine are fantastic, including a romantic sequence between Jacob and Emma in an old sunken ship underwater. There’s also a madly enjoyable finale that plays like Goosebumps on steroids, staged in – well, hell, leave that to surprise. Suffice to say it has rampageous carnival-esque spirit, the film going off the scales in full bat shit crazy land.

A word of warning for parents, though: there are scenes that will likely scare the beejesus out of viewers whose shoe size exceeds their age. Think along the lines of somebody trying to rip out your eyeballs so they can eat them – a nom nom that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. Neither, for that matter, will the film. Viva la Peregrine.

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