MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN – Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the latest fantasy film from director Tim Burton. The film was adapted by Jane Goldman from the 2011 novel by Ransom Riggs, and stars Asa Butterfield as Jacob, a young man who, throughout his life, has been regaled with tall tales about his grandfather’s childhood at a home for “special children”. After his grandfather is killed by a mysterious monstrous creature, Jacob is compelled to visit Wales and seek out the home; eventually, Jacob discovers the house, its owner Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), and the children who still reside there – all of whom have mutations or abilities which make them unique. Gradually, Jacob learns the secrets of the house and its inhabitants, and the constant dangers they face from outside forces who want to obtain the powers of the ‘peculiars’ for their own ends. The film co-stars Ella Purnell, Samuel L. Jackson, and Judi Dench, and has been a popular success at the box-office, where audiences have responded well to Tim Burton’s eye-popping visual style.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children marks only the second time in more than 30 years that a Tim Burton-directed film has not been scored by Danny Elfman (the other, 1994’s Ed Wood, was scored by Howard Shore). The reasons behind Elfman’s absence from this film are unclear; there have been no reports of a breakdown in their friendship, as was the case on Ed Wood, so it could be something as simple as Elfman not having the time available in his schedule. Either way, the assignment instead fell into the laps of composers Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson, and is by far the most high-profile assignment of either of their careers to date. While Margeson will likely be a familiar name to some, for his work on scores like Skyline and Eddie the Eagle, I doubt many have heard of Mike Higham, although he has been around for quite a while; the Englishman wrote additional music for Burton’s films Sweeney Todd and Big Eyes, was the music producer for the movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and has worked as a music editor for Hans Zimmer on Inception, Christophe Beck on Edge of Tomorrow, David Arnold on Quantum of Solace, Henry Jackman on Captain Phillips, Ramin Djawadi on Clash of the Titans, and on many Danny Elfman scores, including Hellboy II, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows, among others.
However, while neither composer’s pedigree is in doubt, it is nevertheless clear that their instructions from Tim Burton were to sound as much like Danny Elfman as possible. Elfman’s sound is so ubiquitous, so much a central part of Burton’s films that this is not especially surprising, but to Higham and Margeson’s credit they have managed to do much more than simply ape his style. Instead, they have been able to take the kernels of what makes Elfman’s music so memorable, and turn it into their own thing. Margeson hasn’t been around long enough for him to have developed a recognizable sound yet, and of course this is basically the first time we are hearing music from Higham, so we don’t quite know how strongly their own compositional characteristics feature, but in terms of the tone and style of the piece, and although the Elfman influences are obvious, it’s original enough to avoid any immediate criticisms for being a second-rate knock-off of a better inspiration.
One thing that listeners will immediately notice, however, is the lack of really strong thematic content. When you think back to all the great Elfman/Burton collaborations of the past, one thing that stands out is how many memorable melodies their scores contain. As such, it’s disappointing and more than a little surprising that Burton didn’t ask Higham and Margeson to write music with a more clear thematic core. There are several repeating motivic ideas running through the entire work, and they are obvious when you actually sit down and immerse yourself in it, but they tend to be more textural than prominently melodic, and won’t leave a lasting impression. Such is the way of Hollywood these days.
In terms of instrumentation, the score is fully orchestral, with an occasional choir, electronic enhancements, and special emphasis on a number of solo instruments ranging from flute to glockenspiel, harp, church organs, and tubular bells. The overall mood is one of fantastical magic and whimsical wonderment, but underpinned with danger and just a hint of sadness; it’s clear that, as young Jacob discovers this incredible world, the horrors that lurk in the shadows are never far away, while the inhabitants of the world itself tend to be lonely outsiders, destined to be misunderstood and shunned. There is a sheen of electronica across much of the score too, high end textures that play in the upper reaches of the sonic range, although they do occasionally become much more prominent. In both “Barron’s Experiment” and “Barron Revealed,” for example, the electronics are actually quite harsh and dissonant. Furthermore, the composers often make use of a recurring idea relating to the concept of time, which is conveyed through the inclusion of a sampled clockwork effect – note its inclusion in cues such as “Projecting Dreams”.
The score’s main theme first appears at 0:55 of the opening cue, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a moody piece which moves from flutes to glockenspiel, and is underpinned by a bed of threatening brass. In the subsequent “Bedtime Stories” the theme transfers to a slightly off-key sounding prepared piano, accompanied by fairytale harp textures, and an unusual rocking electronic pulse that makes it feel other-worldly, while in “Arrival at the Island” the theme appears as a twisted, exotic variation of itself orchestrated for bass flute. Later, the effervescent “Squirrel Rescue” transfers the theme to piano, and surrounds it with light and delicate textures for harp and chorus. Darting in and out of all this is a little motif for Miss Peregrine herself, a flurry of bird-like woodwind flutters which first appear in the opening cue, and later in the score seem to relate to the other ‘ymbrynes’ who protect peculiar children. The Ymbryne motif is heard prominently in tracks such as “Arrival at the Island”, and the magical “A Place Like This,” which dances to echoing synth textures, pretty glockenspiels, and elegant flutes.
There is a two-note motif for the evil Wights who stalk the children, which carries all the way through the score, and is virtually the first thing you hear in the opening cue, where it is heard on dark, menacing strings. It returns with prominence in “I’ll Be Here Forever,” and then becomes a major aspect of the score’s more action-packed second half, often forming the basis of the string ostinatos which drive the music along, alluding to the ever-present nature of the Wights and the threat they pose to the Peculiars. In fact, for my money, the most impressive part of the score is the action material, which has a great deal more weight and presence than one might expect. Higham and Margeson hint at the treasures to come in “The Augusta,” which presents some larger scale versions of the main motivic ideas, but surrounds them with a bank of seafaring rolling strings, James Newton Howard-esque chord progressions, and prominent brass crescendos.
Things really start to take off during “Barron’s Experiment,” “Barron Revealed,” and “Hollow Attack,” which are replete with thunderous brass statements and explosions of choral magnificence. The music here has some vague hints of Elfman’s Sleepy Hollow to it, and is also notable for the clever way many of the recurring textural and thematic ideas – the 2-note Wight motif, the ticking clockwork, the Ymbryne flute flutters, the glockenspiel, the church organ – continually emerge from the dense orchestral writing. The score’s finale, from “Standoff at Blackpool Tower” through to “Two Jakes,” is full-on action all the way, typified by frenetic string runs, rampaging pianos, throbbing brass, and church organ chords which have echoes of the finale of Batman. The descending trombone line in “Ymbrynes, Ymbrynes, Here I Come” nostalgically recalls the antagonist themes Jerry Goldsmith often wrote during the 1990s, while both “Peculiars vs. Wights” and “Two Jakes” have a heavy darkness to them, with the 2-note Wight theme transposed to menacing strings and forming the basis of the underlying action rhythm.
Perhaps the only misfire during this part of the score is “Handy Candy,” a surprisingly aggressive dance music track with phat beats, which sounds like a refugee from the 1990s rave scene. Despite this, the music is certainly impressive, and more powerful and bombastic than one may have expected for a scene taking place in Blackpool, of all places: the famous Pleasure Beach and its popular lights have never sounded so menacing and energetic. The venerable members of Higham and Margeson’s ominous chorus have clearly never had to dodge the discarded fish & chip wrappers and other assorted detritus along Blackpool’s Promenade, or the music wouldn’t be this grand!
The conclusive cue, “Go To Her,” provides a soft, tender ending, with warm piano and woodwind lines which build to a strong finale offset by twinkling chimes, emotional cello writing, the Ymbryne bird-twitter motif, and pretty choral accents. Fans should note that the end credits song, “Wish That You Were Here” by Florence + The Machine, is not included on La-La-Land Records’s handsomely-produced album.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is an impressive debut work for Mike Higham, and further cements Matthew Margeson’s reputation as one of the most impressive young composers to emerge over the last couple of years. Of course, it lacks that special Burton-Elfman magic that often permeates from their collaborations, and the two young composers’ dramatic theme-writing sensibilities are not as strong, but the music is consistently entertaining, engaging on an instrumental level, and has an overall feeling of magic and fantasy that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of those genres.
Buy the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2:46)
- Bedtime Stories (2:11)
- Arrival at the Island (2:26)
- A Place Like This (1:43)
- Squirrel Rescue (2:31)
- Enoch’s Dolls (2:31)
- Projecting Dreams (1:44)
- The Augusta (5:24)
- I’ll Be Here Forever (2:32)
- Barron’s Experiment (5:36)
- Barron Revealed (2:45)
- Surprise Visitor (4:52)
- Hollow Attack (5:24)
- Raising the Augusta (2:09)
- Blackpool (2:36)
- Standoff at Blackpool Tower (3:15)
- Handy Candy (3:28)
- Ymbrynes, Ymbrynes, Here I Come (4:08)
- Peculiars vs. Wights (3:28)
- Two Jakes (2:16)
- Go To Her (6:16)
Running Time: 52 minutes 07 seconds
La-La Land Records (2016)
Music composed by Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrations by Tim Davies, Jeremy Levy and Andres Montero. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman. Edited by Peter Clarke. Album produced by Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson.