Walking out of the theater after seeing Tim Burton’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” I felt conflicted.
On the one hand, “Miss Peregrine’s Home” is a faithful adaptation of the book, and the visuals are as stunning as you would expect from a Tim Burton movie. The eponymous home, perhaps best described as Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters meets Hogwarts, is an undeniably gorgeous set. It first appears about halfway through the movie, after the viewer has been treated to a Day-Glo-bright suburb followed by a transition to a gloomy Welsh island set in muted blues, greys and browns. If there is one thing that can be said about Burton, it’s that he knows how to use juxtaposition to make his expertly crafted color palettes pop even more.
On the other hand, the narrative, as adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman, struggles with awkward pacing and a convoluted plot. The first act leading up to the introduction of Miss Peregrine’s Home follows protagonist Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield, doing his best with an uninteresting character) in the wake of his grandfather’s mysterious death. Portman grows obsessed with finding the Home, where his grandfather had stayed as a child. The intrigue that should make such an investigation engaging to watch is spoiled by the marketing campaign of “Miss Peregrine’s Home,” which has given the audience the knowledge that the Home does in fact exist and is in fact filled with children with “peculiarities” ranging from the ability to fly to a touch that sets things on fire. There can be no drama when we know that Jake is right, and Burton doesn’t give us much of a reason to care about any of the other characters, so it drags on for what feels like far too long until Jake finally walks through a time loop and reaches the titular children’s home.
Once he arrives, the pace picks up, but a whole new host of problems arise. One of the most ‘peculiar’ things about the Home is that all the children, as well as Jake, Miss Peregrine and the casts of most of Burton’s other films, are white. Burton has come under fire for this recently, especially after implying a few days ago in a “Bustle” interview that he didn’t feel people of color were necessary in his movies, comparing calls for more diversity to the “politically correct” inclusion of “an Asian child and a Black” in “The Brady Bunch.”
This has been a recurring problem across Burton’s films; every film he has directed, from his debut “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985 to “Big Eyes” in 2014, has featured a majority white cast, always with a white or white-coded protagonist. In “Miss Peregrine’s,” the casting quickly becomes distracting for two reasons. First, there is no reason for all the children, and Miss Peregrine, to be white. They live in a time loop in Wales during WWII, and seem to come from all over Europe. In fact, the beginning of the movie strongly implies that there is some overlap between the peculiar children and refugees from countries affected by WWII; increased diversity would make far more sense just in storytelling terms, considering the fact that Nazis didn’t target white children .
Secondly, the only actor of color who appears in the film is Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Barron, a peculiar who transforms himself and his colleagues into Lovecraftian monsters with spindly limbs and oddly shaped bodies who eat the eyes of other peculiars in a quest for immortality. Jackson’s Barron is cruel, sadistic and bizarrely comic: the final act includes more than one piece of slapstick comedy at Barron’s expense. The juxtaposition of Barron and the white cast is incredibly uncomfortable. Black men on screen are too often reduced to villains or joke characters, and Barron is both. A caricature to the very end, he receives his comeuppance without being given more than a hint of moral greyness.
It is really a shame, because the stories of people of color who are also “peculiar children” are not the only ones that Burton opts not to tell. While the cast is filled with characters like a young girl with a mouth on the back of her head, a boy whose body is filled with bees, and a girl who can control plants, the camera neglects them for the most part to focus on Jake and his love interest Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), whose aerokinetic powers, while interesting, cannot make up for the fact that Burton has an entire house filled with characters who we know almost nothing about, apart from brief explanations of their peculiarities.
At the end of the day, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” felt like something that I’d seen before. Eva Green’s Miss Peregrine felt like it was written for Helena Bonham-Carter, with her pale makeup and haughty air. The monsters looked like crosses between Slenderman, Jack Skellington and a giant squid. For every moment of originality, there were two that I had seen before. It stayed true to the atmosphere of the book, as well as mostly to the story, but it didn’t work as a movie.
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox