Friday, September 30, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: Enchanting fantasy

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and quite scary fantasy violence

By Derrick Bang

It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect marriage of imaginative picto-fiction and eccentric filmmaking sensibilities.

All dressed up and ready for ... we know not what: from left, Olive (Lauren McCrostie),
Claire (Raffiella Chapman), the invisible Millard (Cameron King), the Twins (Thomas and
Joseph Odwell) and Emma (Ella Purnell).
Author Ransom Riggs’ neo-gothic Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was released to acclaim in the summer of 2011, spending well over a year on The New York Times’ Children’s Best Sellers list. It occupies a niche that blossomed with the 2007 arrival of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, brought to the big screen with panache by director Martin Scorsese.

Tim Burton has just done the same with Miss Peregrine, and if the results aren’t quite as impressive, it’s a beguiling near-miss. This new film also plays to one of Burton’s career themes: the importance of responding with kindness and grace to the misfits in our world, as opposed to shunning or fearing them.

Scripter Jane Goldman — boasting oodles of fan cred for her handling of Kingsman, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and two of the X-Men films — has faithfully retained both the core plot of Riggs’ unusual narrative, as well as its mythical, off-kilter and slightly morbid atmosphere.

That’s no small feat: As with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, much of Miss Peregrine’s appeal lies in the manner in which the story unfolds, and how Riggs chooses to tell it.

Both books also cleverly exploit actual world history, transporting readers to pivotal eras that are both simpler and more dangerous.

And, perhaps best of all, both books evoke the imaginative blend of words and images that was much more common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led by fantasists such as Lewis Carroll, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It would be nice if modern readers — of all ages — grew more tolerant of books with pictures.

Rather drolly, both film adaptations share the same young star.

Miss Peregrine begins in present-day Tampa, Florida, as teenage Jake (Asa Butterfield) discovers that his beloved grandfather, Abraham (Terence Stamp), has died — or been killed — under sinister circumstances. Jake finds the body in the woods near Abraham’s house, and is horrified to discover that his grandfather’s eyes are missing. Worse yet, Jake briefly glimpses a huge something lurking nearby, in the mist.

Jake’s parents have long worried about his acceptance of the many crazy anecdotes Abraham shared with the boy, over the years; this latest incident merely reaffirms the wisdom of sending Jake to a psychologist, the kindly Dr. Golan (Allison Janney). He nonetheless obsesses over his grandfather’s detail-rich stories, convinced that they must contain at least some truth.

The core of Abraham’s stories always revolved around the time he spent as a child in Wales, specifically at a children’s home situated near the tiny village of Cairnholm (the bucolic hamlet of Portholland, on the coast of Cornwall, standing in for this location). Jake proposes a trip to Cairnholm, to “confront the obsession”; his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) reluctantly agrees.

Franklin isn’t precisely an absentee parent, but he does tend to become absorbed by his own passions, most notably ornithology. O’Dowd gives his performance just the right blend of distraction and hasty impatience; we can see why Jake spent so much time with his grandfather. But Franklin does brighten whenever cameras and binoculars are involved, and — happy coincidence! — Cairnholm turns out to be a prime spot for birders.

One of them (Rupert Everett) takes rather a lot of interest in Franklin and his son.

Jake explores and finds the children’s home, but it’s nothing but ruins; even so, his efforts are witnessed by a girl his own age. That would be Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), who leads Jake back to the home via a different route, and — lo and behold — the estate is whole and sparkling in the sunlight, surrounded by equally lush gardens.

Emma is joined by a gaggle of children; Jake is startled to see that one of the boys, Millard (Cameron King), is invisible ... although his clothes aren’t. A pair of enigmatic, speechless twins are concealed behind cloth masks; Olive (Lauren McCrostie) wears long black gloves. Now attuned to such details, Jake notices that Emma wears very large, clunky and obviously quite heavy shoes.

It’s all a bit too much, at first blush; a disoriented Jake bolts, returning to the Cairnholm pub where he and his father have booked a room. But the pub’s owner and his rough, burly customers don’t know the boy, nor does he recognizes any of them. Somehow, Jake has been transported back to 1943.

Returning to the children’s home is the only logical recourse, where this time he’s greeted enthusiastically by Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green), who obliges with a few answers. But only over a formal meal, which is dominated by chunks of a massive carrot that Jake watches Fiona (Georgia Pemberton) “coax” from the garden.

Revealing more would undercut the sense of enchantment and wonder that Burton and Goldman carefully parcel out in captivating doses; discussing even this much of the story could be considered a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Jake finds himself among gentle if, well, peculiar new friends who seem to value his presence more than happenstance would justify.

He also confronts descriptive terms such as ymbryne, wight and hollowgast (Riggs having developed a marvelously strange and detailed mythology). The latter expression raises Jake’s eyebrows, as he recalls the whatever he observed outside his grandfather’s house.

Which prompts a note of warning: This film’s PG-13 rating is well earned, as the lengthy third act becomes quite scary, thanks to creatures — and a tone — quite similar to that found in Pan’s Labyrinth, and particularly that film’s “Pale Man.” Parents with impressionable children are advised to tread cautiously, even if said youngsters have read Riggs’ book. Burton’s fantasies sometimes come with sharp teeth, as evidenced by Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd and Mars Attacks!

Or, to be fair to modern children, perhaps they should caution their impressionable parents.

Production designer Gavin Bocquet has a field day, not only with Miss Peregrine’s immense, lavishly appointed and maze-like mansion and grounds — the Torenhof castle near Antwerp, Belgium, granting the necessary ambiance — but also with the more difficult task of re-creating the World War II-era Welsh countryside. Bocquet also employs color in a manner that Burton’s fans will recognize; the Tampa settings have the bland, cookie-cutter architecture and clichéd palette that made such a memorable statement for the neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands.

England’s Blackpool pier, tower and Victorian circus also play a key role in these events. (Saying more, once again, would be telling.)

Academy Award-winning costume designer Coleen Atwood delivers equally sumptuous work, carefully employing traditional patterns, textures and colors that feel “right” for both 2016 and 1943, while also facing an additional challenge: The outfits are required to remain “intriguing” on their own, because Miss Peregrine and her young charges never change their clothes. (Don’t ask. Still won’t tell.)

Sharp-eyed observers with a strong fashion sense will recognize that Jake’s apparel, although modern, has a 1940s texture that matches what his grandfather wears.

Butterfield makes Jake an impassioned, devoted and resourceful young hero, but one who takes his time to absorb all the enveloping weirdness; we like him immediately. And, despite the story’s bizarre elements, Burton allows familiar emotions to creep around the edges; Jake’s frustration with his father will be recognized by anybody who ever felt misunderstood by parents.

Purnell is appropriately enchanting — and romanticized just enough — as the gentle Emma, who warns Jake not to like her too much. Finlay MacMillan is persuasively condescending as the mildly dark Enoch, the sole “peculiar” who doesn’t immediately warm to Jake, and indeed seems to resent his presence.

Pixie Davies is a hoot as tiny Bronwyn; Pemberton is all enthusiasm as Fiona; Hayden Keeler-Stone is beguilingly off-kilter as the oddly formal Horace.

Green, finally, is divine as Miss Peregrine, displaying equal measures of grace, authoritative solemnity and — when necessary — grim determination. Green also projects an intriguing layer of what feels like antiquated wisdom: a very nice touch.

Riggs’ readers will recall that his book ends with a rather catastrophic cliffhanger, setting up events in the subsequent entries: Hollow City and Library of Souls. Thankfully, Burton and Goldman bring their film to a more satisfying conclusion, although one still open for additional chapters.

We can hope...

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