Since childhood, I’ve held more than a soft spot for the work of Tim Burton. In fact, those who know my film tastes know I consider him one of my very favorites, for his unique perspective and wonderful visuals. The “look” and “feel” he brings I know isn’t for everyone, but I have a hard time remembering a film of his that I haven’t enjoyed on some level…at least until the last few years. I don’t know if I can say he’s “lost his way”, but I haven’t connected well with more recent films such as 2010’s Alice In Wonderland and 2012’s Dark Shadows. Sure, they had their moments, but neither was that memorable. 2012’s Frankenweenie was charming, but again, my mind doesn’t recall much about it. Admittedly, I missed out on 2014’s Big Eyes, largely because I wasn’t familiar with the artist the film focused on. So, as trailers popped up for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I was interested on some level, but I’ve only just now watched it after it having long left theaters and just now hitting pay-cable. The look of the film was interesting to say the least, with a certain sideshow vibe as well as evoking the horror photos one can happen upon from the early days of photography. I knew I’d get around to it, and indeed now, I have.
Apparently, the film is based on a very popular children’s book series, but I haven’t read a word from the series. My wife, being a former librarian, has heard of them, but neither of us knew much about it. The trailers billed it as an almost period-piece superhero-like film with powers and such, but the film bears much more in connection the story trajectories of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, two other popular children’s book series. One might guess that after those properties being adaptated to film, now it’s Peregrine’s turn at bat.
In the film, we focus on a boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield) and his grandfather, Abe (Terrance Stamp). Jake has grown up with a special connection to Abe, hearing fantastical stories of monsters and the like, as well as Abe’s insistance that he lived at a unique home in Wales during World War II. The home, housing children possessing strange, otherworldly abilities and attributes, ran under the tutelage of Miss Alma Peregrine (Eva Green). Following a dark set of happenings, Jake finds himself believing the stories, while his parents (Chris O’Dowd & Kim Dickens) do not. Even after Abe receives a letter from Peregrine, thusly providing validity to all the unbelievable tales, it is only through the encouragement of his therapist (Allison Janney) that Jake’s parent allow him to travel with his father to seek out the home for himself. It doesn’t take long for Jake to see that there are even more strange things to be believed within the walls of the home and from its residents. With twists in time and plots uncovered, it proves to be even more than Abe’s tales made it all out to be.
I will venture to keep this review brief, as I think it’s already obvious from my opening words that Burton’s look he creates in his films goes a long way for me. His trusty production designer, Colleen Atwood, somehow, amongst the soft colors of this film, manages to create with Burton one of his most macabre creations of yet. While Beetlejuice always operated with an air of whimsy as well as The Nightmare Before Christmas, there is a constant sinister air to the proceedings here, once the main plotline really gets going. This film was marketed as a children’s movie, which, of course, springs out of it being based on a children’s book series. Still, while the film was undoubtedly charming to me throughout, there are images within that I know will flat-out repulse many people. I laughed out loud during the film at how far Burton took some things, as they didn’t offend me personally (maybe, I’m just warped a little at this point), but I just imagined how many children might never sleep again after watching. Depending on how you look at things, Burton is doing an incredible job (at an entertaining scary film), or he is doing terrible (at making a children’s film). My daughter watched the film at release without me, and from many nights of her waking up panicked, I can confirm that the film is fodder for nightmares. While it’s my personal belief that kids being scared isn’t always a bad thing, as conquering them builds courage, I know many parents would care to know just how dark this film is.
Another Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman, is missing from the team here; still, what’s offered musically works, save an awkward finale fight set to techno (?!?) music that ruined the entire sequence for me. The abilities of Miss Peregrine and the “peculiar” children were each executed well. We have a girl who floats and must be tethered to the ground, a boy filled with bees inside, two disturbingly masked twins who hide secrets underneath, and many more, and all of them and their sense of “creepy-cool” are unique enough to feel fresh and memorable. One cast member I’ve yet to name is Samuel L. Jackson, and while I’ve witnessed him play parts a plenty, I’ve never saw him like this before. He’s probably my favorite part of the movie (THOSE EYES!!!). Overall, I enjoyed Butterfield as a lead, and following him in Hugo, Ender’s Game, and now this, he’s a likable young actor. Green plays Peregrine without much humor, but I feel that fits with the book, even having not read it. While I liked the look of everything and the actors playing in it, I don’t think it will be a film I come back to over time, which is a shame considering how many times I’ve watched other Burton films out of enjoyment.
As far as spiritual content, I wouldn’t say that there was any “witchcraft” in the film, but I know that the imagery and proceedings did not sit well at all with my wife. I appreciate “the dark side” of things far more than her, as she has no interest in horror/terror or the like. With this being geared to kids, she very much disliked the film, I gathered, but I kind of liked it all on its own terms. Nothing spoke to me as paralleling with Scripture, nor did it strike me as being against it either. It’s my understanding that there are more books, and while it’s anyone’s guess if we’ll see sequels (there’s a pretty strong track record of these types of adaptations only getting one or a few entries on film), I can’t say that I wouldn’t be interested in more. While I mentioned Harry Potter & Percy Jackson before, there we see what I’m talking about: either a series gets made from beginning to end, or the box-office is just underwhelming enough to shelve the series. Also, I would say that both of those are far more appropriate for younger ones (have I mentioned that this is DARK?!?). Either way, we may see more of this world on screen, so if the idea of a kooky, crazy “young X-Men” style film sparks any level of interest, I’d recommend a rental or recording on cable. I would caution though any with smaller children to screen first, for sure. It may not prove to be a favorite or remembered that long, but it’s worth a watch.