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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

I came into this one having a passing familiarity with the book it was based on. I had read part of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs, and the later graphic novel adaptation by Cassandra Jean, neither of which intrigued me enough to stick with the series. The whole story was initially conceived as a narrative thread connecting actual vintage novelty photographs made with trick camerawork, and it shows.

Yet the basic premise centers around a boarding house stuck forever in the same September 1943 day. More than that, it’s a home for children with strange and unusual gifts who are forced to hide themselves from the outside world. Especially from a splinter faction of “peculiars” — known as “hollowgasts” — who hunt down and kill other peculiars to keep themselves stable.

This story was practically gift-wrapped with a neat little bow and a great big tag that said “For Tim Burton”. It’s easy to imagine that this film could have been something truly special in his ’80s-’90s prime. But that was a very long time ago, and his most recent output has only been passable at best (Frankenweenie) and outrageously godawful at worst (Alice in Underland). Alas, this film is no exception, but it definitely lands closer to the “mediocre” side of the spectrum.

Our protagonist is Jake Portman, played by Asa Butterfield. He grew up hearing stories from his grandfather (Abe Portman, played by Terence Stamp) about a special place where Abe went to live with special children who hid away from hideous monsters. Everyone else interpreted this as a metaphor about Abe growing up as a Polish boy in the shadow of the Third Reich, but Abe himself always acted as if the stories were true. All of this is conveyed in flashbacks during the first act.

The film actually opens with Abe’s mysterious death at the hands of a monster just like the ones described in his stories. And Jake is there to see the whole thing, though of course nobody believes him. Hell, Jake barely believes himself. But Abe leaves behind some cryptic instructions (because of course it’s fucking cryptic), and Jake follows them straight to a remote Welsh island.

Long story short (too late!), Jake follows the instructions to find that the boarding house and all of its peculiar inhabitants really do exist. The titular headmistress Miss Peregrine (played here by Eva Green) is what’s called an “ymbryne”, which means that she can turn into a bird. It also means that she can manipulate time, because there’s a combination of powers that totally makes sense.

In the present day, history shows that the boarding house was bombed by a Nazi air raid on September 3rd of 1943. Miss Peregrine uses her powers to continually reset the 24 hours just before the bombs hit. There are supposedly many such time loops all throughout the world, utopian pocket universes where Peculiars (and only Peculiars) can go and be safe and never grow old.

On paper, it sounds like a fine premise for a movie, especially under the direction of a filmmaker like Tim Burton. But there are so many reasons why it works better as a book than it ever could as a movie.

To start with, there’s the fact that this entire book is built around the gimmick of novelty photographs. That’s easy to do in a book: just put the pictures in there with the rest of the text. But a movie can’t come to a full stop every fifteen minutes to show us another strange photograph. The best it can do is show the photos over the opening and closing credits, and show Jacob looking at the photos during storytime with Grandpa Abe.

This brings me to the other big hassle: The massive heaps of necessary exposition. This is an absolutely bonkers world with all sort of complicated mechanics and rules that need a ton of explanation to start making sense. Massive blocks of exposition are much easier to deal with in text form, but they slow a film down to a dragging halt. So to preserve the pacing, the filmmakers have to roll out so many bullshit excuses for why the characters didn’t just come out and tell us the vital information when it might have done more good.

Throw in time travel (always 100 percent guaranteed to make any story ridiculously complicated), and characters whose intelligence and competence fluctuate as dictated by the needs of the moment, and you’ve got one contrived mess of a plot. Though to be fair, a certain lack of logic was inherited from the source material. (Seriously, transforming into a bird and controlling time? What’s the connection?) Yet the film deviates from the source material in ways that only cause more problems. In point of fact, pretty much the entire back half of the film bears virtually no resemblance to what happened in the book.

Another prominent example concerns the Hollowgast. In the book, Hollowgast consume the souls of Peculiars, which allows them to suppress their monstrous nature and blend in with humanity as Wights. Hollowgast are invisible, but they and the Wights are otherwise powerless.

In the movie, Hollowgast and the Wights instead feed on Peculiars’ eyes. It’s a neat touch, sufficiently macabre and presented in a way that’s just creepy enough for kids without going over the line.

More importantly, the Wights of the film have powers. It’s a good idea in theory — after all, Wights themselves are technically Peculiar, so it doesn’t make sense that Peculiars should have powers and Wights don’t. But in practice, this turns out to be another exercise in lazy writing — a free pass to give the antagonists whatever powers are needed in the moment.

By far the most prominent example is Barron, leader of the Hollowgast, and a character who wasn’t even in the books. He’s a shapeshifter, which of course means that he can be anyone or anything that he needs in the moment. What’s even worse is that instead of going on about how Peculiars should be held up as superior beings unafraid to live openly, Barron monologues about how he’s going to live forever. Far less interesting and nowhere near as compelling.

Compare that to Dr. Golan, the actual chief antagonist of the book. The filmmakers even went through all the trouble of gender-swapping the role to cast Allison Janney. And the character gets barely any screen time, shoved out of the way to make more room for Barron. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching Samuel L. Jackson eat through scenery like the connoisseur we know he is, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before. Allison Janney playing an archvillain in this same vein could have been something just as fun to watch, and I’m disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t take that opportunity.

Speaking of which, Judi Dench puts in a brief appearance, tying for Glenn Close in Warcraft as the most baffling and misplaced cameo actor performance I’ve seen this year. Rupert Everett is in the film, blink and you’ll miss him. Then we have Terence Stamp, such a perfect casting choice on paper, who sadly doesn’t present his role with a tenth of the intensity that it needed. And when Terence fucking Stamp doesn’t bring the intensity, you know you’ve got a problem.

The child actors don’t leave much of an impression, mostly because so few of the characters are developed beyond what their powers are. We’ve got Finlay MacMillan as a brooding and unlikable git with the terrifying ability to bring things to life and control them telepathically. We’ve also got the lovely Ella Purnell as Jake’s love interest, a girl with a wide variety of plot-convenient powers based on wind. Aside from those two, there’s really no one worth mentioning.

As for our lead, Asa Butterfield is put in a terrible position. The character is designed to be an everyman, plain and ordinary to serve as a greater contrast with all the weird shit going on around him. But the book was able to counterbalance that by putting in all sorts of stuff about his family history, his emotional trauma, his interplay with friends and family, etc. Something like 95 percent of this got cut, either for time or because it’s the kind of internal monologue that wouldn’t play on a screen. So virtually anything remotely interesting about this character got left on the cutting room floor, and all we’re left with is a boring protagonist. Damn shame.

Chris O’Dowd has a similar problem. He’s in the film as Jake’s father, an ornithologist hard at work on a book he can’t ever seem to finish. In the source material, this was a constant thing with him. But the movie only remembers this when it’s convenient to the plot. The rest of the time, O’Dowd is stuck playing a useless lump with no intelligence or creativity, who doesn’t do anything except drink and watch TV. This is not a good use of your Chris O’Dowd.

The standout of the cast, bar none, is Eva Green. She nails the role to a wall, perfectly delivering a headmistress who’s just the right balance of loving yet stern. She’s scared of the dangers she and her children face, yet she’s poised and confident enough to confront those dangers head-on if need be. Green is so often typecast as an eccentric bitch, and it’s great to see her parlay that into a no-nonsense mother figure in this magical context.

Something else that I will gladly heap praise upon is the score. Michael Higham and Matthew Margeson step in for Danny Elfman, and with all respect to maestro Elfman, this was the right call. The resulting music is creepy in a way that perfectly suits the material, but not in a way that sounds so… well, Danny Elfman. The guy has his own clearly identifiable style, especially under Burton’s direction, and that’s a problem as much as it’s a benefit at this point. In this case, the film was greatly strengthened by departing from Elfman’s style and presenting something new yet compatible with Burton’s style.

Regarding the effects, I must admit that the CGI looks pretty bad from start to finish. Even so, there’s a massive fight sequence between CGI creations in the climax, and it’s easily the most fun I had throughout the whole film. Moreover, the effects are presented with great reverence for the old school. From an unsettling deathmatch between stop-motion monstrosities to an army of skeletons straight out of Harryhausen’s bag of tricks, the film presents macabre spectacle with a retro flair that I deeply appreciated.

This brings me to the heart of the film and the themes at play. There’s a fair bit in here about pride in being unique, exploring the world in search of adventure and discoveries, mortality, senescence, and so on. It’s enough to show that the film was well-intentioned, but not enough to make any kind of coherent statement. No, all of that got back-burnered so the filmmakers could cram in more story points by any lazy, stupid, and/or contrived means necessary.

Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children should have stayed as a book. Everything about this story and its central gimmick works so much better on the printed page. Cuts were made in such a way that all the bland, boring, uninspired stuff made it to the screen, while precious little of the heart and novelty survived the process of adaptation. And it certainly doesn’t help that hefty changes were made in a way that only raises more questions and makes the story more contrived.

It’s certainly not a bad movie — it’s charming and fun in places, with a good balance of whimsical and grotesque. Yet it’s not a good movie, either — the performances are uneven and the plot is a convoluted cliche-ridden mess that couldn’t even hold ice, much less water. It all evens out to a mediocrity.

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