8 October 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children review

Tim Burton has always been a director that I've never really been able to get on with. It's hard to deny that the man has a consistent sense of style, but you've got to remember that he hasn't released a truly good film in pretty much the entire time I've been alive, so it's difficult for me to see his shtick as anything other than a glossy cover for otherwise incredibly mediocre to downright bad movies. As such, I went into Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children assuming that it would be yet another poorly crafted movie coated in a thick veneer of Gothic wankery - but much to my surprise, it's actually... well, fairly enjoyable.

It's been described by many as Tim Burton's version of X-Men, and to be honest it's hard to argue with that. Miss Peregrine, like the children she cares for, is a Peculiar - that is, someone born with special powers and unique abilities that make living in human society difficult, if not entirely impossible. As such, she and other Peculiars like her look after young Peculiars by creating time loops in which they can live in peace.

It's a Gothic take on Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, in effect, and our introduction to this world comes courtesy of Jake, an American teenager who was regaled with stories of this fantastical place by his grandfather Abe while he was growing up. After Abe dies under unusual circumstances, Jake begins to see a psychologist, who suggests that he travels to Cairnholm (the fictional Welsh island where Miss Peregrine was said to live) in order to try to find some kind of closure.

The fact that it took two paragraphs to give a synopsis of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is actually fairly representative of the films most glaring problem - the first act seems to last about an hour and a half, after which we jump pretty much straight into the finale. In fairness, a lengthy first act was sort of unavoidable being as Jake's backstory, the history of Miss Peregrine's Home, the Peculiars who inhabit it, the concept of the time loop and the origin of the antagonists are all fairly vital to the plot once it does actually start - but that doesn't excuse the fact that we spend an awful lot of time simply watching Jake mope around on Cairnholm before he ever even meets Miss Peregrine or the other Peculiars. This part of the film is quite easily the weakest segment, and it feels like it's inclusion may be a by-product of the fact that the film is an adaptation of a book, rather than for reasons rooted in how best to tell this story.

That being said, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children does pick up significantly as soon as Jake finds his way to the titular home, at which point the material seems as if it was tailor-made for Tim Burton and his Gothic sensibilities. Creepy twins dressed head to toe in plain white sacks, a boy who can bring inanimate objects to life using animal hearts, a girl who can't help but float unless she's being held down - this is all classic Burton, to the point where you have to wonder if the book that this film is based on was heavily inspired by Burton's work in the first place. As such, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children ends up being a great example of what can happen when the right material is given to the right director - it's a film that shines in spite of its flaws, almost solely thanks to Burton's innate understanding of how to best bring this world to life.

And part of that comes from the casting, which even in isolation would make Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children something of an anomaly in Burton's filmography thanks to the noticeable lack of both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. One has to wonder if Helena Bonham Carter would have been playing Miss Peregrine if not for her separation from Burton - it certainly seems like the kind of role you might see her in - but regardless of the reason, Eva Green is a more than adequate alternative. She plays Miss Peregrine with maybe a little more restraint, a little more nuance than you might have seen if Helena Bonham Carter had been cast, and that contrasts wonderfully with Samuel L. Jackson at his scenery-chewing best as Barron, the films antagonist.

Without having read it, I'm unable to say if this film is an accurate adaptation of the book on which it is based, but that's far less important than the fact that against all odds, it's actually a pretty good film - uneven in places, sure, but in a way that does little to reduce the films charm. It's quintessentially Burton but in the best possible way, the good version of what the trailers suggested it might be - meaning that as long as he can follow this up with something equally good or better, I'll be the first to admit that I was wrong about Tim Burton and his "Gothic wankery".

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