Tim Burton is back – but strangely without his friend and longtime collaborator Danny Elfman who has scored almost every single one of his movies. However, Burton’s newest entry in his long and illustrous filmography receives a score composed by Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson. As strange as this might sound, it is still unknown why good old Danny dropped out of scoring this very interesting-looking project which clearly would have been a perfect fit for Elfman’s very special composing style. At first, he had been announced as the film’s composer, but when the release date was pushed backwards a few months, his name suddenly disappeared, so it might have something to do with scheduling conflicts – especially considering Elfman’s enormous output recently – although his rather cold answer in an interview, “I’m not doing this one”, might lead to speculations whether he and Burton had some kind of falling out.
While I have never heard of Mike Higham before – turns out he’s actually Elfman’s music supervisor and editor since “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (huh, that’s embarassing that I didn’t know about THAT before) -, Matthew Margeson has been successfully scoring movies over the past few years at Remote Control Productions, especially while working as Henry Jackman’s assistant on various projects and even getting co-composer credits on “Kick-Ass 2” and the amazing “Kingsman: The Secret Service”. Considering the quality of the incredibly uplifting synth score he has created for this year’s “Eddie the Eagle”, it has only been a question of time when he would finally get to score some bigger projects on his own – and with Burton’s newest fantasy adventure being released in cinemas, that possibility became reality faster than I expected (well, it’s not exactly on his own, but you know what I’m talking about…).
The film is based on the 2011 novel of the same name written by Ransom Riggs and tells the story of a boy named Jake who, after a family tragedy, uncovers a secret refuge known as Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. As he learns about the residents and their unusual abilities, he slowly realizes that he is part of their “family” as well and that he must support them against their powerful, hidden enemies, the so-called Hollows. But it is not always easy to figure out who is real and who can be trusted – after all, Jake’s aim is to find out who he really is.
Burton’s movie itself is actually quite enjoyable in its best moments; however the visuals make a far stronger impression on the viewer than the narrative of the movie itself that feels too busy all the time and unfortunately fails to provide a real character development. Yes, it is definitely a Burton film but it feels somehow restrained as if he could not roam free and do whatever he wanted to try out with his adaption of the fantasy novel. Yes, he shows how special, how peculiar, Miss Peregrine’s children are, but he does not manage to fully explore each of their own personalities which makes it harder for the viewer to connect with them on a personal level. Unfortunately, not only does the film have a lot of flaws, but the score as well.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” opens the album, the strings and some admittedly nice woodwind solos – accompanied by the ticking of a clock – setting a mysterious mood full of curiosity and unknown secrets. However, there is no memorable theme, something you would recognize again later in the movie. It was James Newton Howard who once said that one of the most important aspects of a score should be a hummable theme that you would still hear in your head after leaving the cinema. To my own disappointment, this is clearly not the case in here.
Next up is “Bedtime Stories” that presents the main theme once again on solo piano, accompanied by harp. There’s a glimpse of loveliness when a three-note motif that is reprised later on in the score, played by the chimes, suddenly emerges. Unfortunately, the cue gets quite uninteresting when the strings join in – it’s all about the mood, not about actual melody, which makes the following cues really boring. It all gets better when we learn to know Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children as Jake enters the house and acquaints its unusual inhabitants. The composers are providing some interesting woodwind textures that build up a thematic basis for the rest of the score and is easily recognizable in connection with the fluid harp and piano writing. As Jake, played by Asa Butterfield, helps the flying Emma rescuing a squirrel in “Squirrel Rescue”, the music really gets going for the first time. This trend is continued in the following tracks as well as in “The Augusta” that features the first huge orchestral outbursts as Emma shows Jake her secret, a sunken ship. String ostinati and a beautiful choir contribute to building up an atmosphere of wonder and excitement that culminates in a tutti crescendo until a piano solo, the “relationship theme” (well, that’s how I call it) that has been introduced in “Bedtime Stories”, accompanied by warm strings, brings back some tenderness – the score feels “alive” now for the first time. However, this is immediately diminished by the suspense material that follows.
Cues like “Barron Revealed” or “Hollow Attack” don’t do much for me, the latter of both including some extremely generic action writing. The use of an organ is actually a nice idea, but it doesn’t help obscuring the simplistic composition. It is what people always associate with the negative side of Remote Control Productions and modern action scoring in general: Endless string ostinati that lead into nowhere, accompanied by a lot of percussion – but an actual melody that captures the listener’s attention, that underlines the importance of what can be seen on screen, is completely missing. The worst part probably comes with “Handy Candy”, a techno track that is supposed to underscore the final clash between the peculiar children and the Hollows, and which is just awful to listen to – especially for a film score as it is a complete change of style within the score that just does not work for me and feels totally out of place.
At least, “Go To Her” is quite a pleasant surprise; we are introduced to an exceptionally beautiful piano solo based on the previously established three-note motif reflecting the relations between the characters in the movie in a truly bittersweet arrangement. It is then followed by some exquisite woodwind writing that makes you feel some real emotion for the first time (in the last cue…now that was fast!). That theme is sequenced to the strings later on. After a small glimpse of the woodwind idea and the chimes motif that represent the chlidren’s strangeness, a heavenly choir suddenly emerges and sings over an optimistic-sounding string ostinato – a beautiful send-off for an otherwise disappointing score.
Contrasting early expectations of mine, “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” is a rather weak work, especially considering Margeson’s recent output. There are definitely some great musical moments hidden in here, but they are scattered all over the score. The approach of the composers is, as said before, quite modern. Of course, this does not automatically mean that it is a bad score, but the overall simplistic writing and especially the extensive use of endless string ostinati in combination with the generic action writing contribute to the music’s disappointing nature. Margeson and Higham’s intention of presenting the film with a low-key, more subtle score is not bad by any means. However, some enjoyable moments of wonder and adventure where the music really shines cannot compensate for the uninspired passages of bland suspense scoring that make up the largest amount of music assembled on the 71- minute album by La-La Land Records – a missed opportunity that fits a rather disappointing 2016.
Music composed by Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrated by Tim Davies, Jeremy Levy and Andres Montero. Album produced by Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson.
1. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
2. Bedtime Stories
3. Arrival At The Island
4. A Place Like This
5. Squirrel Rescue
6. Enoch’s Dolls
7. Projecting Dreams
8. The Augusta
9. I’ll Be Here Forever
10. Barron’s Experiment
11. Barron Revealed
12. Surprise Visitor
13. Hollow Attack
14. Raising The Augusta
16. Standoff At Blackpool Tower
17. Handy Candy
18. Ymbrynes, Ymbrynes, Here I Come
19. Peculiars Vs. Wights
20. Two Jakes
21. Go To Her
Album available on La-La Land Records.