Sunday, October 9, 2016

Brief Thoughts on Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

A little kookiness never hurt anyone. In fact, some visionaries have been able to use a signature kookiness to create an entire career for themselves, with today's case in point being Tim Burton, whose Gothic atmosphere and macabre invention have led to wholly original and fantastic films the likes of Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish. In spite of that pedigree, Burton has found himself in something of a slump for ten years now, giving us lifeless underperformers such as Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, with only Sweeney Todd to break up the monotony.

It seems the trend is set to continue, which is something of a disappointment, because Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children actually had a lot of promise. It's a return to Burton's beautifully Gothic and quirky mode of storytelling, a step away from the usual suspects of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, an inventive storyline perfectly within his wheelhouse, even down to a brief Florida setting recalling the days of Edward Scissorhands. For the first hour and fifteen minutes, it actually doesn't look too bad either. Possessing a genuinely creepy and outlandish atmosphere, the film sees Burton approaching the world the film is set in with an entertaining level of mystery and enchantment. Admittedly opening on a bit of a limp note with the extended twenty minute set-up to the titular home (in a way that almost stirred bad Alice in Wonderland memories), this shift from dreary and muted to bright and whimsical actually proves to be a clever bit of filmmaking. Certainly it gives Burton a chance to recapture his distinctive visual spirit after his deliberately low budget deviation Big Eyes, and while falling a bit on the stale side at times, the imagination of the world that he's conjured, and exploring the many enchanting little secrets that come with it make for quite a fun watch.

However, while these stretches of the film  do have a good deal of fun to them, one thing that unfortunately hinders it is the excessive level of expositional ground the film has to cover. In fact, right out of the gate, the film stumbles with this issue, haphazardly able to set up the life of our main character Jacob, who makes for a bland and unengaging protagonist, mainly due to star Asa Butterfield of Hugo fame barely being able to carry the film, and observing all of the fantastical sights surrounding the home with total passivity. On the whole, the very subtle mechanics of the fantastical world feel like some semi-incoherent nonsense, taking extensive time out examining the intricacies of how the home is protected by an indefinite time loop, a conflict between other "Peculiars" wherein the villains of the piece, led by Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Baron, have attempted to break free of their repetitive realities, and much mystery surrounding Jacob's own grandfather, played by Terence Stamp. The info comes at such a fast and furious rate, complete with characters coming and going with such little fanfare (such as Dame Judi Dench's nothing cameo), that it feels like the viewer barely has time to catch their breath before being hurled into the next kooky scene, which highlights the uneven pacing of the overall picture.

In fact, it's only when finally meeting the title headmistress that the film truly begins to experience a shot of adrenaline, with Miss Peregrine herself performed with eloquent gusto by Eva Green. The character doesn't actually have much to do in her screen time, but every time that she does appear, she immediately injects the film with much needed energy. There's something equally pleasing and unnerving about her presence in any given scene, watching over all of her children with a gentle and loving nature, but also slightly on edge and seemingly not all there, with a hint of creepiness to her presence that suggests something almost sinister despite her calm demeanor. In fact, it's almost enough to make you feel the character is something of a stealth villain (I haven't read the book it was based on, so I didn't know), but that distracting feeling turns out not to be the case, resulting in something of a weak pay off that feels like it's cutting Green's talents short. Still, her presence is genuinely just as unsettling as it is charming, actually feeling like a Bonham Carter performance without falling into overly manic camp.

But what unfortunately undoes the film is when getting into the final 45 minutes of the film, as Samuel L. Jackson's villainous demon becomes more prominent. Jackson approaches the role with good energy, and his sense of wit does lend the film some of its biggest laughs, but for a villain that's had so much build-up devoted to him, complete with sharpened teeth and bright white eyes that make him look possessed, he doesn't translate a very strong sense of threat. He seems to be attempting to recreate his success with Valentine from Kingsman, which similarly blended cartoonish silliness with a genuine sense of threat. However, this villain isn't really threatening, it's just overly goofy and misplayed, though I certainly wouldn't place that blame on Jackson, who is at least trying.

And honestly, Jackson may be the absolute least of the problems with the fial 45 minutes, as the film progressively begins to fly off the rails from that point on. Any semblance of consistent tone immediately gets lost as we go from outrageous moment to moment, striking unevenly at attempted character growth, silliness, Matthew Vaughn style action, and more of Burton's macabre sense of humor, with one such instance being a bizarre but stale battle between hideous monsters and animated skeletons set to techno music. Not only that, but the aforementioned issues of the exposition and rules of the universe only begin to get even more exacerbated, piling up massive logic gaps that feel like the filmmakers are directly contradicting their own laws, almost as if they simply gave up and began to make up their own amendments to the rules as they went along. The result is an absolutely unruly - albeit forgettable - mess that tests the patience and the reason of the viewer as it goes on, only topping all of that off with a final twist into the frankly outrageous. I look forward to the day that Tim Burton can remind everyone what made him the terrific talent we all know and love, but this is not that day...

** / *****

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