Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


There's nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

There’s nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

(2016) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Louis Davidson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Directed by Tim Burton

 

I think that as children we can be divided into two categories; those who want to fit in, and those who don’t care. Many who want to fit in often feel like they don’t. We feel alien, peculiar and not at all like someone who is popular or admired. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in. What we fail to realize as children is that sometimes being on the outside looking in is far cooler than being in a cage.

Jake Portman (Butterfield) is one of those kids who doesn’t feel like he fits in. The only place he feels halfway normal is at his grandpa Abe’s (Stamp) Florida home, where the old man regales him with tales of fighting monsters during Worlds War II, and staying at an orphanage run by a Miss Peregrine, who presided over children with strange powers known as Peculiars.

After getting a call for help from Abe, Jake and his co-worker Shelley (Jones) arrive at Abe’s place to find signs of a struggle. They later find him dying in the yard, both his eyes plucked from his head. This understandably messes Jake up and he starts seeing a shrink, Dr. Golan (Janney). She urges him to follow Abe’s story, particularly after he discovers a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe which takes him and his father Franklin (O’Dowd) – who is more interested in researching his book on bird-watching which he’s been working on for years without progress than in bonding with his son – to an island off the coast of Wales.

There he finds the ruins of the orphanage, bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1943. He also finds some of the Peculiars who take him into a cave which brings him back to 1943 – on the very day the house would be destroyed. There he meets Emma Bloom (Purnell), a lighter-than-air girl who has control over air (she can create windstorms and bubbles of air underwater) and would float away if not tethered or wearing her lead boots whose heart was broken by a young Abe back in the day, the necromancer Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) who can bring life to lifeless things, Olive (McCrostie) who is a pyrotechnic and Miss Peregrine (Green) herself. As it turns out, Miss Peregrine is kind of a guardian spirit called a Ymbryne who are able to morph into birds (in Miss Peregrine’s case, a falcon).

He learns the story of the Peculiars and those who are chasing them – the terrible Wights, who are led by the white-haired Mr. Barron (Jackson) who have been experimenting on Ymbrynes to make themselves immortal. Some of the Wights who are quite human-looking have turned into Hollows, hideous tentacled monsters who eat the eyeballs of Peculiars to revert back to human form.

It turns out that Mr. Barron is much closer by than they think and Jake has become an integral part of the fight. It turns out that Jake is able to see Hollows and sense their presence – a gift that Abe also had. With Jake and Emma falling in love again despite Emma’s best efforts, time is running out and Jake must find a way to protect the children from the evil Wights and from the ravages of time itself.

Burton is one of the most uniquely visionary directors in history. This is the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse, or at least you would think so. This film is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult books by Ransom Riggs, which are in turn based on vintage photographs Riggs had collected that were somewhat spooky or hinted at uncanny powers (if you buy the young adult books, you’ll see the actual photos but some of them can be seen on the Internet if you’re willing to spend time Googling them). Riggs showed these pictures to Burton before filming and it’s plain to see that Burton used them as inspirations for his character design of the children.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a typical Tim Burton film in many ways. I thought it far more mainstream than what we’re used to from the director and far more vanilla in tone. Now while I admire Burton’s work a great deal, even as an admirer I’m willing to admit that his work has been less consistent in the past decade or so, with great work (Big Fish) interspersed with not-so-great work (Dark Shadows). This falls somewhere in the middle, with leanings more towards the latter.

Butterfield is a decent enough actor, but not one who fills a screen up with charisma. Much of the movie depends on Jake becoming a leader, but I’m not sure I’d follow him very far. He just seems kind of…bland. Green, who has maybe the most incandescent smile in Hollywood, doesn’t seem to be having much fun here; she comes off as a kind of second-rate Mary Poppins only less cheerful. I almost expected her to say “Spit spot!” Thankfully, she doesn’t.

Burton reportedly tried to go with practical effects as much as was possible, but you really can’t use them for an army of skeletons battling giant tentacled creatures which takes place during the climax. The effects are reasonably good and the setting reasonably moody but nothing here really impresses other than that Burton seems to do a good job of capturing the tone of the antique photos which colors the whole film.

One of the big missteps oddly enough is Jackson. One of my favorite actors in Hollywood, he doesn’t seem all that motivated here. When I see Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, I want to see Samuel L. Jackson whether that expectation is fair or not. Instead, we get a kind of mannered performance, like what would happen if Tim Curry was impersonating him. He just never convinces me that he’s all that malevolent or dangerous.

This could easily have been a major event film and franchise establishment but instead we get a movie that kind of just gets by. It doesn’t really feel like a Tim Burton movie. Fox currently has a reputation of being a studio that meddles in the product more than most of the others, so one wonders if there is studio interference at play here. Regardless of whether that’s the case or not this is a movie I can only moderately recommend. Chances are it will be a momentary distraction that will escape your memory faster than Emma Bloom escapes gravity.

REASONS TO GO: The film has an odd kind of antiquarian feel. The climax is thrilling.
REASONS TO STAY: The whimsy normally associated with Burton is missing. Jackson is wasted in a bland villainous role.
FAMILY VALUES: There are children in peril and some violence of a fantastic nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Miss Peregrine’s home actually exists; it is called Torenhof and is located outside of Antwerp in Belgium.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Storks

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Tuck Everlasting


Tuck Everlasting

Into the fire from out of the fryer go the Tucks.

(2002) Family Fantasy (Disney) Alexis Bledel, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Jackson, Scott Bairstow, Ben Kingsley, Amy Irving, Victor Garber, Kosha Engler, Richard Pilcher, Sean Pratt, Julia Hart, Elisabeth Shue (voice). Directed by Jay Russell

Many people yearn for eternal life, free from the terror of the unknown that is death. However, eternal life would be a mixed blessing at best, a curse at worst. How does one cope with remaining the same age forever; would eternal life mean the cessation of growth?

Winnie Foster (Bledel) lives a stultifying life in small town Tree Gap in 1914 New England. The daughter of a successful man (Garber) and a mother (Irving) who disapproves of anything that does not fit into her narrow world view, Winnie is rebellious and lively, aching to see the world and fearful that the societal conventions of Tree Gap will never let her venture far beyond her own parlor.

Being the anti-authoritarian sort, she ventures into the woods that border her home, property owned by the Fosters. There she sees a handsome young boy drinking from a spring that bubbles up from the roots of an ancient oak. The young boy is Jesse Tuck (Jackson). She questions him about what he’s doing there; he warns her not to drink from the spring.

Before she can do anything, she is swooped up by a man on horseback – Jesse’s brother Miles (Bairstow). He carries her to a cabin deep in the woods where they are met by the boys’ parents, Angus (Hurt) and Mae (Spacek). No, they’re not members of a survivalist organization; they’re just simple folk. Mae welcomes Jesse into her home, chiding Miles for being rude and frightening the young girl.

The Tucks are a family that doesn’t wish to be found but what they’re hiding from becomes clear when a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Kingsley) comes around looking for the Tucks. When Winnie’s disappearance becomes public knowledge, he offers aid, providing a perspective nobody else can.

You see, the Tucks have a secret, one that has kept them isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time; about 90 years to be exact. Remember that spring that Jesse was drinking from? It grants eternal life to all those who drink from it, freezing them eternally at the age they were when they first drank. That’s a secret that people would kill for…people like the Man in the Yellow Suit, who has a connection to the Tucks that speaks to their dark past.

This is based on a popular 1976 children’s book by Natalie Babbitt. One would think that the dark themes of the book would be watered down and Disneyfied by the Mouse House but amazingly, they are not. This is not pablum that has been dumbed down for the lowest common denominator; this is meant to provoke conversation and thought.

Hurt and Spacek make a good couple, with Hurt playing a wise old man quite well. Bairstow and Jackson play hot-headed youths whose penchant to act first and think later begins the whole mess but also rescues their parents on at least one occasion. The dynamic between all four actors is marvelous is a highlight of the movie.

Bledel is an actress I’ve never particularly warmed to; she’s always seemed rather shrill to me, but she is more than solid here. She is literally the audience surrogate in the movie and it is through her eyes that we see events. Bledel shows a very deft touch here, something she doesn’t always show in other movies she’s done. I hope she has more performances like this one in her; she would rapidly move to be one of my favorites if that were the case.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of creating the pre-World War I rural America, from the settings to the atmosphere; Irving plays the uptight upper class mother who wants her daughter molded into the very model of a proper well-bred lady, and it’s not a role Irving has taken on in the past but she makes it work here. Garber is in my opinion, one of the most underrated actors ever; his work on “Alias” and “Eli Stone” on television is as strong as anything that’s out there, film or TV.

Now, I do have one bone to pick with the movie – there is a theme tune that is used over and over again in the movie – you hear it constantly and I believe it is there to signify the mystery of eternal life. They could have done without ramming it down our throats.

The point of the movie is not necessarily that eternal life is either good or bad (although the general consensus is that it is bad) but rather the unfulfilled life is the worst of all choices. Winnie’s outlook of being doomed to a life that has no resonance with her, that leaves her gifts unutilized, her potential unrealized – that is the true tragedy. The Tucks may have longevity but they are hiding from life (although the boys have seen much of the world, they are now living with their parents…even when they’re 107 they always come back to mom and dad). Winnie, who has a short lifespan compared to theirs, embraces life and all it has to offer both good and bad. Truly, there is more value to quality of life than quantity.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written, well-acted and the world of the Tucks is set up nicely, as is the world of turn of the century rural America.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Theme music is used ad infinitum until a pleasant tune actually becomes tedious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and some images and situations that might be scary for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Bledel’s feature film debut after establishing her name in “The Gilmore Girls;” the part of Jesse was originally offered to her Gilmore co-star Jared Padalecki but he declined in order to work with different co-stars.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with author Natalie Babbitt, and an interesting “Lessons of the Tucks” feature which examines themes and issues brought in the movie which is used in a similar manner as a standard trivia track.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was unsuccessful.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Fountain