Sunday, October 2, 2016


There are times when addressing a film-maker's personal ticks textually in their films can be a bad idea. Super 8 tried to be both a semi-autobiographical look at a young director and a tribute to the director's obvious influence of E.T., but J. J. Abrams wasn't quite able to meld his two narratives together. Zack Snyder was so well-suited to lurid superhero deconstruction of Watchmen that putting him in charge of the "playing it straight" icons of the DC Comics fiction has proven an increasingly bad idea.

But for all that Tim Burton's recent doubling down of his own aesthetic (when not necessarily to the benefit of the story) has resulted in a rather sour quality record since 2003's Big Fish, something finally woke him up. And while he's always been a filmmaker who's aesthetic sensibilities and storytelling quirks have seemed a bit unstuck in time, his most recent Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children doesn't just play with that idea, that's the literal plot of the film.

And here, it does work.

Miss Peregrine is based on a YA fantasy series of the same name, and like many YA fantasy series since a boy wizard busted the doors open on the sub-genre nearly 20 years ago (raise your hand if that makes you feel old), it's basically X-men.

Yes, even Harry Potter was basically X-men.

You know the rules - there's a school for special children. Not just bright (though of course they are, in their own quirky ways), but these children have "abilities." Which make them "different" than "normal" people, and therefore often "persecuted" or seen as "dangerous" and therefore need to hide from the outside world. It's a metaphor, you see. They're watched over by a good special-abilitied person who's job it is to protect the young tykes from the Bad Special-Abilitied People. In this case, the titular Miss Peregrine (played by Eva "I'm always the best part of my movies" Green) has set up her home to be protected from both a fearful humanity and a pack of ravening evil "peculiars" by putting it in a 24-hour time loop on a certain date in 1943, just before it's destroyed by a Nazi bomb. It's a metaphor, you see.

Of course, something has to come along and mix things up - enter Jake (Hugo's Asa Buttterfield), a lonely boy who doesn't seem to fit in or relate to anyone, except his eccentric grandfather. His grandfather who told him stories about having to flee Poland as a boy live in a special school to escape from "monsters."

It's a metaphor, you see.

In some ways, the opening of Miss Peregrine is where the film is at its strongest, with Butterfield showing some impressive range and lead-worthy charisma, even when playing against screen legends like Terence Stamp or character actor greats like Rupert Everett and Allison Janney. It's also where Burton gets to really roll up his sleeves and play with the "twisted fairy tale monsters intruding on a suspiciously 'ordinary' world" elements that have always been well inside his wheelhouse, and explore the feeling of this young boy caught between two time periods - one that offers comfort and security, and one that offers a sense of genuine belonging. The tone of this film finds an early balance that really suits Burton's "Grimm's Fairy Tales meets German Expressionism meets Ray Harryhausen monster movies" sensibilities.

If there's a weakness that Burton can't overcome, it's that the film gets a bit bogged down once it hits the mid-way point and realizes, "Oh yeah, time to be Harry Potter now!" It still packs in enough enjoyable performances (Eva Green absolutely owns most of the first half, but Samuel L. Jackson shows up right on cue to start devouring scenery in the second) and unique visuals to sustain the rushed narrative beats leading to the finale. And while you've seen the "special students use their powers to fight the baddies" bit before in films like X-men: First Class and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Burton has more than a few tricks up his sleeve that make his rendition of that tune both enjoyable from a basic narrative standpoint and positively gleeful for genre-savvy viewers.

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is easily the strongest of the Potter wannabes to hit the silver screen in the last decade, and if it never quite reaches the heights of that particular series, it generally knows when to play by the rules, and when to embrace something a little more. . . well, peculiar. In the end, it manages to find a balance between the best of both worlds.

It's a metaphor, you see.

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