On Thursday, a minor shock wave went through social media as Bustle published a short piece quoting director Tim Burton in conjunction with his new film, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Associate entertainment editor Rachel Simon apparently asked Burton why his films — 36 of them to date — focus almost exclusively on white characters. His dismissive response, weirdly enough, had nothing to do with the specifics of casting or conceiving his own films: he flashed back to his childhood annoyance over The Brady Bunch adding "an Asian child and a black," and praised himself for not demanding that blaxploitation films should include more white people. "Things either call for things, or they don't," he said. That's such a broad and indeterminate statement that it could mean almost anything, but in context, it seems to translate to "My movies don't have any specific call for non-white people."
Burton is certainly under no obligation to cast non-white actors in his films. But his comments to Bustle aren't startling because he's defending his casting, they're startling because they show such a profound disconnect from both the issue of diversity and the modern world as a whole. Miss Peregrine is Burton's first film with a black actor in a leading role: Samuel L. Jackson plays the villain, a chipper, urbane, eyeball-eating monster named Barron. Burton certainly could have pointed Simon to the film he was promoting, and called it evidence that he's aware of his racial homogeneity, and taking steps to combat it. Or he could have pointed out that some of his most famous movies take place in self-aware parodies of 1950s suburbia, where pervasive whiteness is part of the joke. Others are set in high-gloss fantasy lands where racial inclusion might make the characters seem more like actual people, and less like the props they're meant to be. Given how often he's cast Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Helena Bonham Carter as his leads, he might even have been able to pretend he's not interested in looking outside his preferred repertory company.
Instead, he used strangely racially charged language to complain about a TV show from his childhood, and implied that because of a genre that peaked and all but disappeared more than 40 years ago, he's justified in ignoring non-white actors today. Both of these examples are so dated that they suggest a profound disconnect from the world — not just from diversity issues, but from any understanding of modern cultural concerns.
Curiously, that same disconnect is exactly what's wrong with Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Burton's adaptation of Ransom Riggs' 2011 bestseller is a manic but emotionally inert movie that packs on the quirks without finding any personality underneath them. It feels like a curio — not an eerie, unexplained one, like the vintage photographs that inspired Riggs' Miss Peregrine trilogy, but a dated and familiar one, yanked out of the dusty old boxes piled up in the Burton archive.
Ender's Game star Asa Butterfield plays Miss Peregrine protagonist Jake, a frustrated teenager raised on his grandfather's fantastical stories about fighting monsters in World War II, and living in a Welsh orphanage full of children with unexplained powers. But Jake is old enough to dismiss those stories as fantasies, and he resents his grandfather for presenting them as the truth. (It's essentially the plot of Burton's Big Fish all over again.) When his grandfather (Terence Stamp) dies, seemingly killed by one of the monsters he described, Jake winds up in the care of a psychiatrist (Allison Janney), who nudges him toward investigating his grandfather's stories. So Jake and his dad (Chris O'Dowd, completely wasted in a nothing role) go to Wales, where Jake finds that the orphanage is a burnt-out shell in the present day. At the same time, the building is intact inside a "time loop." There, the eerie kid residents perpetually repeat the same day from 1943, under the protection of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a sort of elaborately styled benevolent Cruella de Vil who sometimes turns into a blue falcon.
Burton's movies have always followed the theme that it's lonely but rewarding being different, and that there's a wholesome innocence in the macabre. Miss Peregrine's Home sticks to the pattern. The orphanage is full of "peculiars" — young people with circus-sideshow anomalies, including a body full of bees, an oddly positioned extra mouth, and the ability to set things on fire with a touch. They feel like off-brand X-Men, with Miss Peregrine as a much more fashion-forward Professor X. (That's no coincidence: screenwriter Jane Goldman co-scripted X-Men: First Class and has a story credit on Days Of Future Past, and the way she introduces the kids — running around the house and showing off their abilities one by one — is right out of the First Class playbook.) But the X-Men have goals that define them, and that drive the action of their stories. Miss Peregrine's kids are just scenery. None of them have much personality, including Jake's obligatory love interest Emma (Ella Purnell). They're just meant as stakes in the war against Barron and his monster compatriots, who want to eat all the peculiars' eyeballs because for some reason, they confer humanity on inhuman things.
Much like Burton could have explained his casting choices in a variety of sensible ways, Miss Peregrine could have done a lot more with the premise of a group of kids trapped in childhood for decade after decade, unable to leave their remote island without dying. The story echoes Peter Pan, but with more distinctive and capable Lost Boys, with their own unique powers. For that matter, the endless repetition of the same day recalls Groundhog Day, which found poignancy in the gimmick. Miss Peregrine also resembles other stories about collections of freaks and geeks who have to unite to survive, including Katherine Dunn's Geek Love and Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique. All these stories have depth in ways Miss Peregrine lacks.
But Burton's movie isn't interested in subtext, or the characters' humanity, or any larger story than the dull, familiar fantasy fight against a cartoonishly simple foe. Samuel L. Jackson plays a character very similar to his glowering baddie in Jumper: He's evil because he's evil, with no bigger reason given. Everything about Miss Peregrine feels arbitrary: the peculiars' widely diverse mutations and abilities, the villains' actions (how exactly did they find out that peculiars' eyeballs cure monsterism?), the film's mechanics of time travel, and especially Jake's choices. (Those notably include making a major life decision toward the end of the film, then instantly changing his mind, without reflection or explanation, just in time to make things extremely difficult for himself.) It's a parade of mindless and unsatisfying action, weighed down with cartloads of exposition and backstory that complicate the narrative without making it any richer.
And none of the characters feel like people. Green's portrayal of Miss Peregrine is arch, performative fun, all swagger and style that would sit comfortably next to Jennifer Jason Leigh swanning it up as a big-time reporter in the Coen brothers' Hudsucker Proxy. But even her character is a bunch of mismatched bits of quirk — time-loop powers, bird-form powers, pointy hair, altruistic maternal feelings — that don't add up into anything consistent or coherent. Burton packs in the CGI spectacle, most notably in a rambunctious, nonsensical climactic fight between animated skeletons and faceless monsters on a carnival pier in the dead of winter. But much as with his Alice In Wonderland, it's all slick surface, and no substance.
There's a sense, watching Burton's movies since 2003's Big Fish, that he's lost touch with the kind of humanity he brought to his earliest films. The Maitlands' awkward fight to come to terms with their own deaths in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands' alien-doll attempts to become a real boy, Ed Wood striving to create art in spite of his complete lack of talent — they all had real pathos to go with the wacky humor and frantic slapstick. But too many of Burton's films take place in their own frozen time loops, where the action wheels spin frantically, and Johnny Depp mugs ferociously, but the characters don't develop in any significant way. Miss Peregrine's time-trapped kids, Depp's squeaky-voiced version of Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd with his endless mad revenge scheme, and Burton with his decades-old Brady Bunch resentments all have the same problem. They're stuck, and they have no interest in moving forward. Adding more non-white characters wouldn't fix the problems with Burton's films. He needs to make some sort of meaningful connection with the world — preferably the modern one, where actual diverse people live even if they aren't "called for" — to make his arguments sound valid, and to make his fantasies feel real again.