In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the children are stuck in a “loop” for their protection. Their overseer, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) has the ability to reset time, so her and her charges have been stuck on September 3, 1943. Director Tim Burton has also been stuck in the past. While there have been minor detours, he’s a filmmaker who has steadfastly refused to grow beyond his comfort zone. It’s almost like he’s worried of disrupting the “Tim Burton” brand that has almost morphed into self-parody. But in Miss Peregrine, he recasts his vice as a virtue, showing that there’s safety in stagnation and that what he brings to cinema—his love of “peculiar” people and his ability to see “monsters”—is heroic.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) lives an ordinary, miserable existence in Florida. When his grandfather (Terence Stamp) dies under mysterious circumstances, Jake and his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) go to Wales so that Jake can get “closure” even though what he really wants is to find is Miss Peregrine, who might have the answers to his grandfather’s untimely demise. When he meets up with Miss Peregrine, he learns that the bedtime stories his grandfather told him were true, and that children with powers like invisibility, floatation, pyrokinesis, and other peculiarities are real. They’ve also been stuck on September 3, 1943 so that they won’t be found by the Hallows, led by the nefarious Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson).
While Jake believes he’s ordinary, it turns out that only peculiars can pass through loops, which allows him to go back in time to 1943 and meet up with Miss Peregrine and her children. Jake’s peculiarity is that he can see the hallows, former peculiars who, due to a failed experiment, turned into monsters who want to eat eyeballs because it can return them to their human form. Jake’s brave and smart and all those qualities we expect from a hero, but what makes him special is that he’s the only one who can protect the other peculiars since the hallows are invisible to everyone else.
It’s not hard to see the similarity between Burton and Jake. Burton has long cast himself as the advocate for the weirdoes going all the way back to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure through his 2012 film Dark Shadows (his previous film, Big Eyes, dealt with artistic ownership and recognition). For a while, Burton standing up for the strange ones was admirable, and he saw the world as people who could either embrace the dark side of imagination or chastise it. In the 1980s and 1990s, that was a reasonable position to hold—weirdoes need to stick together.
That’s a tougher position to take in 2016 when the Internet facilitates fragmentation and the ability to find your people. If you want to be an outsider on the Internet, you have to work for it because chances are people like you are only a few clicks away. There’s safety in numbers, and frankly, “peculiars” don’t really need a “visionary” like Burton who has shown that his field of vision is rather limited.
Which is why it’s interesting that the story is set both in the past and the present. For Burton, he sees the past—even the past of World War II—as a safe haven, and for a filmmaker who hasn’t really grown over the years, that makes sense. It’s also an odd position to take since the reason the peculiars are kept in the past is because the world wouldn’t understand them. That seems like a rather hellish existence for these super-powered children. They never get to grow up, they never get to change, and the world never gets to accept them. I find that a bizarre position to take because the world isn’t going to change and improve unless people are confronted with others who are different.
Miss Peregrine’s solution is to keep outsiders hidden from view for their own protection, but it doesn’t question if that’s really the best solution for these children. None of the children question their purgatory, it’s never discussed if the children are free to leave, and the children never come into contact with the normal world that may or may not reject them. Would the world rebel against a young girl who’s lighter than air? Would they flee from a boy who’s full of bees? I don’t know, but it’s a rather pessimistic view of humanity.
Sadly, Burton needs this kind of world to exist for his own relevancy. I don’t mean to diminish Burton or his past work, but Miss Peregrine only really works as a meta-commentary on the director and his worldview. It’s disposable entertainment at best, and it’s basically Burton’s take on the superhero genre without making a Marvel or DC movie. But beneath the superpowers and fight against other super-powered people, Miss Peregrine offers a fascinating glimpse of a director striving to remain relevant and having to live in the past in order to do so.