I Know Why The Caged Bird
by ETHAN PETERSON
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
dir. Tim Burton
When asked why all of the children in his new film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were white, Tim Burton answered that he finds it more insulting when diversity is needlessly shoehorned in. After all, the main villain here is Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), although he is a shapeshifter. Given that time travel is possible here through “loops” which are locations that enable passage to a specific time in the 20th century, it is likely Mr. Barron just found out about Samuel L. Jackson and wanted to look like him. So no worries – no actual individuals of color had to be inserted into this pale ménage.
Joseph Epstein had a essay earlier this year about the lunatic of one idea – how some people see the world through one lense which distinguishes everything they do. These simple-minded folk are led by Tim Burton, who is the lunatic of one aesthetic. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children builds to a climactic battle at a carnival, where monsters called Hollows attack the white children. To defend themselves, a boy named Enoch (Finley MacMillan), animates a group of skeletons to battle them. It looked almost exactly like a scene from The Nightmare Before Christmas, which Burton did not even direct. Everything else in the production design of this movie seems remarkably familiar.
Earlier, Jacob Portman (Asa Butterfield), or as he is referred to about 700 times in the movie by the gentile children, “Jake”, finds his grandfather (Terence Stamp) dead, his eyes torn out. Instead of being horrified or even mildly disturbed by what he has found, Jake decides to solve the murder. About twenty minutes of flashbacks follows with young Jake learning about his grandfather’s adventures during World War II. When he presents this information to his class at school, everyone laughs in his face and his parents tell him that his grandfather is a liar. He feels very alone.
Jake and his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) journey to Wales so that the boy can prove to himself that his grandfather’s stories were hot bullshit. Despite the fact that this movie cost $110 million, none of it was actually shot in Wales. You can tell, because this part of the movie looks far from glorious; more like a depressing beach town in the Tampa area.
When Jake meets all of these children, they each demonstrate their powers for him. Leading this white menagerie is Miss Peregrine herself (Eva Green). Disappointingly, Miss Peregrine declines the opportunity to become a romantic option for Jake, and turns into a falcon at times. Despite being a magnificent bird of prey, she only uses this form to hide.
Jake seems vaguely upset about the rejection, and sets his sights on a woman more his own age. Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell) most recently dated Jake’s grandfather which is pretty screwed up if you ask me. Perhaps understandably, she is very reluctant to kiss him.
Emma’s powers are massive: not only is her lithe body lighter than air, but she can also swim for hours just by manipulating air bubbles. The rest of the group feature powers of differing utility. One is strong, another likes bees, another is invisible. Another girl can start fires (hint: anyone can), while two of the children are Gorgons who wear masks to prevent turning everyone to stone. The moment when they take them off still makes me want to cry.
Burton is great at this kind of casual horror. Thank God for that, since he seems terribly bored with every other aspect of this script by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass). All of the children are kept pre-adolescent with no more agency than five year-olds. Miss Peregrine has had no adults in the vicinity for the half-century she has been reliving the same day, waiting for Jake to arrive. I suppose she is asexual, but maybe in her bird form she meets other falcons. I chose not to input the words “how do falcons have sex?” into google, but it is good to know it is there.
In many ways, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children feels woefully dated. Its character development is sub-Avatar level, and boy does it take its sweet time. Ultimately, in a film that should contain a lot of mystery and wonder for its magical world, everything about the fantasy aspects of the film seems woefully normal.
The most wild elements are actually the moments when the narrative interacts with historical truth. Burton specifically doesn’t want to go there — the Nazis bomb the home into oblivion, which is why Miss Peregrine keeps reliving that one day before the violence. But unlike in Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, no one talks about the war, or the world around them in the movie. It is all just background noise for magic tricks.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.