Tim Burton’s latest movie, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is in theaters this weekend. Among its curiosities: a pair of rapping Welsh teenagers, a suspiciously Slender Man–like apparition, dance-fighting skeletons, Frankensteined puppet fighting, and World War II bombers. Also a kid who can project movies out of his head.
Suffice it to say: I have questions.
Was this material written with Tim Burton in mind?
I don’t think Ransom Riggs wrote his debut novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, with Tim Burton in mind. (He seems to say as much in interviews.) Riggs hatched the idea for the book when his publisher suggested that instead of making a picture book with photographs he’d collected, he ought to use them as the basis for a story.
That turned out to be wise advice: The book eventually reached the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list. And now it’s a Tim Burton movie.
Let’s be honest: Burton hasn’t made a good movie in lo these many years (a decade or more, depending on your tolerance for Johnny Depp’s baritone in 2007’s Sweeney Todd). But back when Burton was still magic, his best work — the era of Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice — showcased his strange knack for outsider stories, especially involving adolescents who feel as if they’re different from the normals, and therefore alone.
That Burton draws on his own experience for his work is no secret. In 2012, he told the New York Times about it:
I felt like an outcast. At the same time I felt quite normal. I think a lot of kids feel alone and slightly isolated and in their own world. I don’t believe the feelings I had were unique . . . I would imagine, if you talk to every single kid, most of them probably felt similarly. But I felt very tortured as a teenager. That’s where "Edward Scissorhands" came from. I was probably clinically depressed and didn’t know it.
And so you can see why Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children seemed like a good fit for him. It serves as a sort of retread of his usual themes and tones.
Burton’s latest film centers on 16-year-old Jacob (Asa Butterfield, who’s grown up a bit since Hugo), whose eccentric grandpa has told him stories his whole life of the children’s home in Wales where he lived, and the friends he left there: Fiona, who can make plants grow; Hugh, who controls bees; Enoch, who can bring dead things back to life; Claire, who has a mouth in the back of her head; Horace, who can see the future in his dreams; and Emma, who’s lighter than air and thus must wear lead shoes.
His grandfather dies under unusual circumstances, and Jacob ends up on a trip to Wales, where his parents hope he’ll put all this nonsense to rest. Naturally, the opposite happens.
It gets quite scary and exciting. Tonally, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children hovers somewhere between Burton’s signature territory — grotesque horror, awkward campy humor, gross-out set pieces (a plate full of eyeballs springs to mind) — and straight-up adventure. And it works enough of the time that I can safely say this is a return to form for Burton. It’s better than anything he’s made in a while.
Whether you like that depends on how interested you are in retreading the filmmaker’s early catalog, just with some pieces switched around (and some great child actors).
Is Eva Green an actual goddess or merely a mortal more evolved than us?
Oh, Eva Green. Eva Green! The word "bewitching" long wandered in search of its resting place, till Eva Green was invented.
Green, whom I assume is descended from some siren of old, is magnetic and gorgeous but also a touch weird — qualities she aptly cultivated during her run on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful — and, therefore, an ideal Miss Peregrine. Besides tending to all the peculiar children, Miss Peregrine is an "ymbryne," a Peculiar herself, with the ability to create time loops (you’ll see) and become a bird.
As Miss Peregrine, Green is absolutely the best thing in the movie, and the only sad part is that she isn’t in it more. Instead, we get a bit more leeringly villainous Samuel L. Jackson than seems in good taste — whereas Green’s special gift is giving you the sense that she is comforting and strong but perhaps not entirely safe. It’s quite a thrill to watch.
With whom did Judi Dench lose a bet?
And same for Allison Janney. Both of them show up for a few scenes and then fade away, and not in a good way, or at least not if you think (correctly) that they’re living treasures. You could easily forget either of them is in the movie. Why bother getting in the greats and then just disappearing them or blowing them out a window? We’d better get some all-Dench, all-Janney deleted scenes before this thing is finished.
(Also, let’s just ignore the whole Rupert Everett thing and hope it blows over.)
Also, I have some spoilery plot questions
Like, where did Jacob’s dad end up? How did Jacob get to his grandpa’s house so quickly? Why didn’t the twins exercise their powers way, way earlier and just turn everyone to stone? Did that tall, gangly monster actually spring from the Something Awful forums? What, for the love of everything, possessed Jacob’s Polish grandfather, who fled the Nazis, to suggest to his 16-year-old grandson — from the future, where we know what happened — that it’s a good idea to return to Europe circa 1943? And who felt like a campy skeleton army scene set to dance music was a good idea and not a jarring tonal shift?
How can stories like this start saying meaningful things?
Obviously, stories about people with special powers that make them feel weird aren’t going anywhere soon. It’s practically the foundation of young adult literature, especially of the dystopian sort — the Divergent series is a prime example — as well as the entire X-Men franchise. (By the way, Jane Goldman — who wrote the screenplay for the teen-focused X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, as well as Kick-Ass — scripted this film, too.)
The reason is obvious: When you are a teenager, just discovering the new things about yourself that you’ll appreciate in a decade or two but right now just make you feel like a goofy misfit, it’s comforting to think of your newfound height — or ability to do math, or attraction to other people you used to find boring — as features, not bugs. It’s empowering. Or at least less confusing.
But there’s something unsatisfying about this story and many like it, which is simply this: The Peculiars’ special powers set them apart from others, but they also help them do truly extraordinary things — stuff that ordinary normal people can’t do at all. These extraordinary things make the "weirdos" into heroes.
Which is great! It makes for good storytelling and fun plot devices.
What’s maybe less great is that your average weird-feeling teenager doesn’t have the same option as the kids living with Miss Peregrine or Professor Charles Xavier. Feeling like a stranger in your own body occasionally results in being the fastest or smartest or best, but more often you just feel like a loser. Seeing other kids’ weird traits magically transformed into superpowers never really made me feel better about my own perceived deficiencies.
I know stories of misfits are meant to be inclusive and empowering. It’s an admirable goal. But maybe there’s some way to tell the now-familiar story anew — or at least value what makes us different without pretending it makes it easier.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children comes to theaters Friday, September 30.