On the outside Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has all the traits of a good Tim Burton film: weird characters, a world of magic, and an opportunity for great make-up and weird costumes. Maybe it’s Burton’s own fault for setting the bar too high, but I was underwhelmed and felt it lacked the emotional punch of so many past Burton films. Perhaps this is, in part, due to my own self-acknowledged dislike of most child actors. The character Jacob has several emotional scenes necessary to pull the story forward, however as I watched him on screen instead of feeling, I found myself thinking, “I know what I’m supposed to be feeling.” The supporting cast seemed more like sketches than well-rounded characters, and while there were a few subplots (mostly romantic) to carry us through the film, by the time we got to the final battle, I never actually cared enough to worry when someone was in danger. Instead I just sat there, mind drifting, to something else. Never a good sign.
Now, on to the major issue that was brought up in the media even before the film’s release: a lack of diversity in the cast. I will say this, while I hadn’t previously noticed a lack of diversity in Burton’s past films, once I sat down and thought about his previous characters and actors I realized that Burton does have almost entirely white casts. There is the argument that one should cast the best actor regardless of skin color, and perhaps the best auditions were white actors; alternately there is the argument that one should make it a priority to create a diverse cast to better represent the world we live in. Lets be honest, we don’t live in a Utopian society, and humans are not (yet) color-blind (as much as some would like to believe they are) so I happen to side with the latter argument. I also happen to agree that switching a character from white to black (or any alternate non-white) is not controversial while switching a character of color to a white/caucasian actor is a problem — but that’s a conversation for another time. Until we see an equal range of actors of different skin colors, genders, sexual orientation, etc. it is up to those in power to make a conscious decision to create a diverse cast. And Tim Burton certainly has that power.
This isn’t to say Miss Peregrine would have succeeded if the cast had been more diverse, I think what felt particularly lacking was the (forgive me) peculiarity. Sure, the characters have weird ‘traits’ introduced as we meet each one (and surprise, surprise, each trait has its moment of usefulness at the end) but the movie itself never felt special. The backstory of the villains felt simultaneously too complex and too simple, with far too many plot-holes and flashbacks. Rather than slowly present the audience with snippets leading up to a big reveal, the exposition is lumped in all at once. And therein lies the major problem when adapting novels to films; that type of structure might work well on the page, but it’s far to tiring on the screen. I don’t want to sit for an entire scene listening to who is coming, why they are doing this, for what purpose, and how we are going to stop them. Stop. I’m bored. Show, don’t tell. Easier said than done, of course.
While I loved how they showed the difference between the flat, grey world of Jacob’s 2016 versus the vibrant colors and depth of Miss Peregrine’s school, there was an opportunity missed to delve even further. For a world where the peculiar is possible, it felt incredibly straightforward. It was only in the ultimate battle scene where I finally felt that Tim Burton’s quirkiness came through. Without spoiling the ending (although trailers are doing a good job of that on their own) I will say there was a vintage, old-school Burton-style filmmaking brought to life that invigorated me at the very end. It was good timing too, as I was just about to write off the movie altogether.
Next time, push the envelope further. Try something weirder. You have before you a world of magic, add some color and craziness. The world we live in is dark enough, flat enough, and there are enough depressing dramas to bring us down; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was a missed opportunity for something completely different.