Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children deals with the trials of magical, white children who are fighting a diabolical black man, bent on eating them. I just typed this sentence in the 21st Century.
This did not come out of a South Park parody. This is a very real, mainstream movie that is performing relatively well, despite being as racially tone-deaf as The Jazz Singer. It’s a Tim Burton movie, so it’s bound to gather an audience, eager to see if Burton actually showed up at work. Last time I checked, it scored a 64% on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it ahead of Storks (I can already tell this is a big NO, and I haven’t even seen Storks).
Is it yet another case of filmmakers getting pats in the back for little work and tons of racism?
I’d say, at this point, audiences just can’t care because, save the occassional Big Eyes, Tim Burton has been making the exact same movie so often, that it’s not longer a joke at this point. This one, in particular, is is about a foster home of children who inhabit a cyclical time loop to escape the passage of time. If this isn’t the most succint metaphor for this film, or Tim Burton’s work for that matter, I don’t know what is.
In fact, let’s colour it up a little: The film makes a point that, if the children leave their time zone into our own world, they’ll wither and die. Sure enough, it was already old when I thought about it. And the racist scripting is actually the least offensive part of it.
Take the premise of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, cast it with X-Men in a Harry Potter-esque setting within the framework of a Groundhog Loop a la Edge of Tomorrow and add a touch of Tuck Everlasting. A straight-up parody or crossover would have been less derivative. Surprisingly, I don’t mean this as an insult.
One of the film’s few saving graces is how adamantly it embraces these clichés, like a child writing her first fanfic. It takes all the tropes and obligatory beats of fantasy and superhero stories because it wants to have fun with them and it was genuinely entertaining to spot them. Unfortunately, Miss Peregrine succumbs to the lowest instincts of both genres, that is, too much emphasis on superpowers and too little on the characters and the intimate journey. The screenplay, as its presented, feels like a first draft. It read its Vladimir Propp, but hasn’t quite figured out how to carve its own identity within those 30 magical steps.
Despite, or because of this, I’m sorely tempted to read the novel by Ransom Riggs that it was based on. We’re no strangers here to adaptations that either sabotage the original story or miss its point completely, so I’m willing to consider that Riggs articulated these tropes into a much more cohesive and character-driven story.
The whole concept seems parallel to The Spiderwick Chronicles, right down to their adaptations framing the story by old maps and photographs and casting a British actor as the very American boy hero (why is that a thing?), but it’s the execution that counts.
So what is the film’s weak link? This guy:
Not to belabour the point (i.e. totally belabouring it), but Burton is so immersed in his comfort zone that he’s become his own parody. The first five minutes pack a monster attack, courtesy of Samuel Jackson as the Evil Black Cannibal, yet the most surreal thing is how by-the-numbers the film is.
The opening alone is a crash course in all his clichés: A lone outcast with dark hair in a very white suburbia is neglected by his peers for being unique in some fashion. They’re estranged from their parents, they bond with an eccentric, older mentor, who may or may not die, and they’re dragged into society’s underbelly with the supernatural and undead, all of them just as white.
It’s blatantly cynical. The film knows that we know, yet can’t care. No working around or subverting these clichés. It just keeps them coming. “Lone outcast finds his worth” is an intrinsic trope to all our storytelling, but when it’s framed in this gothic horror setting it’s trying to create, Burton is just too obvious a choice.
Spielberg would have been a tad obvious, but he’d at least keep the attention to the characters and the emotion. He would have put more focus on Jake interacting positvely with Miss Peregrine’s home and dissect how they cope with the loss of his grandfather. Alternatively, they could have even gotten Edgar Wright and made an absurd, tightly paced comedy that used the clichés to its advantage.
The script places too much time introducing characters by way of their superpowers, at the expense of their actual characters. Because of this, entire parts could have been excised. This includes our lead, Jake (Asa Butterfield).
I want to say that Butterfield is terrible, but it doesn’t look like he had much direction to begin with. He shows the exact same register over stepping in mud as he does in his compulsory hero’s origin scene (guess what that entails). I think he might have been trying to channel Jerry Seinfeld in the latter.
In-film, Jake is an excuse for the plot to move along. He hardly changes, has no emotional range over the peculiar things he sees (sorry) and there are at least four other characters that would have been more compelling leads.
Jake’s gimmick is that he can see the Hollows (Dementor/Xenomorph babies) that are attacking the house and can instruct or lead the others to attacking them. Except our ensemble cast includes an air/waterbender, a firebender, a NECROMANCER, an invisible nudist, a boy with bees coming out of his mouth and other powers I won’t list because you’ll think I’m making them up.
In short, every single one of them is perfectly equipped to trace, combat and defend themselves from the Hollows.
Yet the film is adamant that Jake has to come and tell them to use their powers. It’s an even whiter version of the White Saviour Complex (seriously, what is the discourse at work here? Muggle saviour?) If you’ve given such a vast pool of abilities to your sidecast and not one of them clicks as a character, you’ve done something wrong.
The more compelling prospective leads I mentioned? I’ll narrow it to two.
The first is Jake’s father (Chris O’Dowd), a struggling ornithologist who had a strained relationship with his father (Terrence Stamp), on account of his frequent departures to the home.
He logically assumes that his son is mentally ill and tries to protect him in his own, deeply flawed method. O’Dowd brings a natural resignation that is visually resonant to the murky, dark ambience of Wales in his side of the story and it’s perfect. As fathers go, he’s no Greg Universe, but highly compelling in his own way.
The other is our eponymous character, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green).
She’s pretty much a composite of the requisite Johnny Depp/HBC roles expected from a Burton movie, with the addition that she cares about her performance. Given Johnny Depp’s recent behaviour, I would not complain if Burton traded him for Eva Green in all his future projects.
Miss Peregrine is part of a sect of women called ymbrinnes who can transform into birds and keep the time loops where the children live. Think a mash-up between Minerva McGonagall and Homura Akemi.
From what I can tell, the ymbrinnes gather the mutants (called Peculiars here) and shelter them in a specific area in a specific day, from which they can rewind time over and over. Thus, the children never age or venture outside their small world.
This explanation is quite vague and I should be clarifying why the children express these powers, why Miss Peregrine is using a time loop to protect them and why they’re agreeing to such a miserable life. For such questions, you’ll have to either read the book or make something up, because they never tell us.
None of the supporting characters get backstory or motivation, and so Miss Peregrine is completely opaque to us. A couple of frames imply that she is obviously more sinister than she lets on.
Unfortunately, I walked out of the theater two minutes early, so if there was a stinger/sequel hook that outed her as the plot’s mastermind, I could not tell you.
Then we get to Dr. Barron (Samuel Jackson), because let’s add a Gratuitous German name to our Subtlest of Villains.
Samuel Jackson wants to eat the mutants for immortality and that’s the sum of his character. His abilities and intelligence are script-induced. There are two climatic moments where he has Jake with an axe to his throat but fails to kill him because….because.
Jackson, God bless him, hams it up and tries to breath some fun in the role, yet somehow comes out with less dignity than the time Frank Miller dressed him up as a Nazi. His casting as the only leading black actor of a Burton film in recent memory, in the role of an Evil Cannibal…I honestly don’t know what to add to that. When asked about his peculiar casting choices, Burton had this to say:
“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding film diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”
Tim Burton, defender extraordinaire of quirky outcasts, thinks black people only belong in blaxpoitation films.
Tommy Wiseau is a better feminist than Burton is an ally. Outstanding.
But I did say that the racism was the least offensive bit. What actually sunk the film?
The elephant in the room (or how a child was molested and no one cared)
This is the second time in three articles that I have to link to Barbara’s piece and I’m praying I don’t have to make a habit of it.
I have a crackpot that all mainstream fantasy writers recently had a secret meeting and this pattern is just a very misguided attempt to raise awareness on the issue of male children being victimized by adult women. But given the caliber of writers and directors we’re dealing with, I’m not holding my breath.
The situation as presented is a genderbent Steve/Sharon: Emma, the air/waterbender (Ella Purnell), had the hots for Jake’s grandfather when they were growing up. But fate and the script forced him to move repeatedly out of the loop and age naturally into an old man. So now Emma projects her situation into Jake to the point that she refuses to say “goodbye” because it relieves the shock of losing him.
Just to preemptively clear any obligatory “technical” justifications, Jake is written as the standard teenager and Emma has the mental experience of a woman pushing 80, so….Yeah.
The story is rife with superpowers and timey-wimey stuff, yet somehow it can’t fathom that two characters could interact without any “romance”, nor that Jake and Emma could bond over their affection for his grandfather in any way that didn’t necessitate sexual tension. In fact, considering the timing at which Grandpa Abe frequented the house while neglecting his family, it’s all the more logical that Jake’s father is such an emotional wreck. But apparently this isn’t creepy enough, so let’s just add a love quadrangle where the necromancer is jealous and hostile to Jake for daring to attract Emma, while the firebender is pining for him.
(As a side-note, one of the film’s few surprises is that the token bully necromancer does NOT team up with the evil cannibals seeking immortality. On one hand, it would have been obvious, but on the other, why give a side character the power over LIFE AND DEATH if it wasn’t meaningful to the overall plot?)
For better or worse, Ella Purnell seems to know exactly what the situation is and plays the part as deeply troubled, like she’s going through her own Hellfire whenever she’s with Jake.
For a fool’s second, I thought they’d subvert it and that Jake would ultimately live a healthy life with consent ahead. But nope, he falls right into her arms, they kiss, I walk out. And considering that Jake is fulfilling the same role as his grandfather, this implies that he’ll also be moving out of the loop, so he’ll age. And if his progeny takes his place….
I think this is the darkest film Tim Burton has ever directed.
In conclusion, there’s good ideas and an interesting layout with terrible worldbuilding and no self-awareness. I’ve tried to be generous and find the seeds for a good story, but I can’t recomend it in good conscience when I went in without expectations and came out disappointed.
But hey, I guess things either call for things, or they don’t.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox and NBC