‘Miss Peregrine’ is a welcome return to normalcy for Tim Burton
Mirava M. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - October 2, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The title is a mouthful, but the premise of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is actually fairly easy to swallow. Commonly described as “X-Men meets Harry Potter,” the screenplay is based on the bestselling series by Ransom Riggs, boasts a seasoned cast featuring the likes of Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel Jackson and Judi Dench, and is directed by Tim Burton.

Yet despite being one of the most well-known filmmakers of the century, Tim Burton’s track record as of late has been less than stellar. His trademark is macabre fairytales and he’s a master of the gothic aesthetic, but it appears this schtick had worn thin with Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. So, when he was tapped to do Miss Peregrine, you might expect the final result to be as predictable as his recent efforts.

But Tim Burton is not the only double-edged sword in this film. These days, the genre of young adult fiction (or YA) has become synonymous with “box office disappointment,” as the recent string of book-to-movie adaptations have not been able to summon their rabid fanbase to cinemas. Hunger Games’ Mockingjay finale did not meet expectations, nor did Allegiant (the third of the Divergent series), though Maze Runner made enough of a splash to warrant two sequels.

So how does Miss Peregrine compare? For the most part, it’s not as peculiar as it initially claims. Its own teenage wunderkind goes by the fairly standard name of Jake (played by Asa Butterfield), whose grandfather used to regale him with stories of his youth spent in an orphanage full of kids with special abilities. After his mysterious death, Jake makes his way to Wales to see if the stories are true. Of course they are: groups of superpowered humans can create and live in pockets of time and space called Loops. They can go in and out of Loops, but otherwise hole themselves in a specific area on one specific date, which resets repeatedly.

There were once rumors that Burton would direct a Harry Potter film. Whether true or not, this film gives you a glimpse of what that might have been like. And while the comparisons to HP and X-Men are fair, the vibe it exudes is more comparable to that of A Series of Unfortunate Events, with a similar bunch of kids being tracked down by a menace who is played by a renowned actor taking their own hamminess to a whole new level. In this case, said menace is Samuel L. Jackson, who injects the frenetic energy much needed in the latter half of the film.

Miss Peregrine is at its best, surprisingly, when it’s not trying to out-strange you, but rather when it delves into the human psyche and tries not to fall into the black hole of its own lore in the process. Watchers will relate to the multiple characters’ yearning for isolation and determination to live in the past. Many characters write off Jake as being in denial of his grandfather’s fallibility, and grief is one of the propelling factors for Jake’s sudden recklessness.

Miss Peregrine herself is one big question mark whose shades of gray could not be more aptly depicted by Eva Green’s inventive deconstruction of the mentor role. She is regal, otherworldly and sagely — or tries to be, but with touches of cruelty and possessiveness. Her obsession with being on the clock and recreating her home’s perfect day inside the Loop makes her more rattled than put-together, and she comes across as more of a Miss Havisham than Dumbledore. You wonder why she is so protective of her children and if her behavior crosses the line; whether she means well or has simply gone mad from literally living in the past.

Questionable character motivations are what keep Miss Peregrine’s momentum going, especially when it gets bogged down by the superfluous rules of their universe.  There’s a lot that is unexplained, like why orphanage caretakers (called Ymbrynes) are all women, where they come from, why they turn into birds exactly, and why does Ella not wear pants when her power is to literally suspend herself in the air? At least, however, it makes sense why the kids are in hiding: to put it simply, the kids are creepy. The movie prides itself in emphasizing less-attractive superhuman powers, like having bees spurt out of one’s orifices or having a pair of accessory jaws on the back of one’s head.

One of the more breathtaking scenes depicts a bomb being dropped during World War II. Remarkable moments such as this help add a more human dimension to the story and keep it firmly rooted in reality, thus putting it above other YA. When Miss Peregrine picks grit over whimsy, it shines. At some points, it even feels like a period film. However, while it manages to circumvent many clichés, it steps right into others: the romance is perfunctory at best, and the savior inhabits his role without much struggle, complaint or feeling in general. But the action is entertaining, the effects not saturated to the point of weariness. The Wales landscape accounts for some great cinematography and there are enough memorable scenes to make it an entertaining watch. It is definitely a step in the right direction for Burton, who is, ironically, at his best when the peculiarities are reined in.

Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell star in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Now playing in cinemas (also in 3D) from 20th Century Fox and distributed by Warner Bros.

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