So you’re telling me that Tim Burton’s latest movie doesn’t have many black people in it? Hold on, I need to sit down.
You’re telling me that the only nonwhite character in Mrs. Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is Samuel L. Jackson with shark teeth and axe hands? And that he’s the first nonwhite main character in a Tim Burton movie ever? (Except for Johnny Depp, who we all know is part Cherokee.) And that Tim Burton doesn’t seem to have a problem with this? I for one am shocked. Shocked!
We all know from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that there is a dearth of good roles for performers of color across all genres. Tim Burton is in a position of power to fix this. After all, the man has been on a tear for the past fifteen years, directing such fine films as the Planet Of The Apes remake, the Charlie And The Chocolate Factory remake, and the Dark Shadows adaptation. How can this visionary not imagine the interior lives of nonwhite characters?
Alas, Tim Burton has set his movie in Florida and an island off the coast of Wales. As the old Burt Reynolds quote goes, “The audience will always forgive you for being wrong and exciting, but never for violating demographic trends.” Jake (Asa Butterfield), our protagonist, is a classic “YA outcast who nobody understands”: good looking, dark hair, not smiley. The Blondes at his school are mean to him. He doesn’t have any friends except for his grandpa, who lies in bed with him and tells him stories about his “Peculiar” classmates at a secretive Welsh boarding school.
After a monster kills grandpa, Jake’s therapist tells him and his dad to take a trip to the Welsh island where grandpa grew up. Rather than go to the school with Jake, dad wants to spend all day drinking stout and taking pictures of birds on the beach. Chris O’Dowd delivers an amazing performance as a clueless dad when his character is clearly written as a sociopath. Picture in the most genial, befuddled dad voice: “Look, kiddo, I know you looked up to your grandpa, but he was never around and probably cheated on your grandma. I don’t care that he died, so save your emotions for your therapist.”
Once Jake ditches his alcoholic father and goes to the school, it turns out grandpa’s childhood friends are real. There’s a boy who vomits bees, a girl who grows giant carrots, a jerk who makes meat puppets fight each other, etc. All of these loser kids are actually 90 years old and stuck in the ‘40s because their headmistress, Mrs. Peregrine (Eva Green), has trapped them in a Groundhog Day-style timeloop. The boarding school was about to get air-raided by Nazis, so to save their idyllic existence they decided to prolong it indefinitely. What, I wonder, drew Tim Burton to make a movie about characters branded “Peculiar” who are doomed to repeat the same routine for decades on end?
Not that it really matters, but the movie’s time travel rules are nonsense. We learn early on that the Peculiars can’t step out of the timeloop into 2016 for more than a few minutes without rapidly aging and dying. So why doesn’t Jake shrink into a fetus before disappearing when he exits a loop in the past? If they change the future after leaving the timeloop, does it overwrite the original timeline or create a new universe? Why don’t they make an alternate timeline where white mediocrity isn’t rewarded and John Singleton is the one directing $100m-budget kids’ movies while Tim Burton makes terrible action movies with Taylor Lautner?
That’s not to say there’s nothing to like about Mrs. Peregrine. Eva Green’s mercurial performance as the kids’ alternately nurturing and controlling ward gives the island’s mysteries a sense of genuine foreboding. Some images are among Burton’s most striking: I particularly liked the shot of Jake flying his love interest Emma Bloom like a kite. Also the near-destruction of the island at the end of the timeloop, which has lots of pretty CGI and slow/fast-motion effects and reversed gramophone sonic weirdness. I’m sure it will be memed soon with the caption, “When you have 3 AP tests the next day but you ask for an extension.”
Anyway, you might be thinking that Eva Green is the bad guy and that the movie is all about Jake freeing his dumb friends from her time prison and counseling them through their Stockholm Syndrome. Wrong! She’s actually the good guy because she set up the time prison to protect the Peculiars from an army of invisible monsters led by Samuel L. Jackson, a villainous Peculiar shapeshifter (i.e. he can pass as white in Florida and Wales, ooh scary) who eats Peculiar eyeballs to regain his humanity after he turned himself into a monster when he tried to become immortal by electrifying birds!!!
How will the Peculiars get out of this one? Would you believe that Jake’s Peculiarity is seeing the invisible monsters? Out of all possible superpowers, this might seem like the worst. However, it’s actually the best for 2 reasons: a) it gives Jake a reason to feel important around these creepy-ass kids, and b) they need to stick to Jake if they want to survive. The best friendships (and even romances) are founded on codependency, so this is a win-win.
Tim Burton has done it again with a heartwarming story of an oddball who escapes his bad home life to live with emotionally stunted freaks whose lives are a thousand times worse than his. A timeless tale of a young boy who expands his horizons by going back in time to the good old days. Speaking of the good old days, I’m so thankful that Burton has been able to keep pace with the times—the final battle is set to an EDM/Trance medley—while preserving the one thing that’s remained constant in each of his films since the start of his career.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510