Watching a director lose his or her touch can be a strange experience. It’s a slow burn, opening with a few efforts you usually give more credit than they likely deserve, trading on the quality of his or her previous films. As time passes and more mediocre (or outright terrible) projects see the light of day, the slow realization dawns that perhaps a downward trend is starting to emerge. Eventually, new films on the horizon are meant with dread rather than anticipation, the mix of that memory of what once was and the technical possibility that it could be reclaimed with the crushing inevitability of disappointment when it is finally released.
Perhaps the best example of directorial falling from grace is Tim Burton, so far removed from the hot streak that brought us Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Things began to curdle with his adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starting a string full of stinkers like Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows and Big Eyes. From time to time, a glimpse of the old Burton would sneak through in projects like Sweeney Todd or Frankenweenie, but even they were not wholly satisfying in the way his classics were. For a former Tim Burton fan, a new film is more of an opportunity for anxiety than a cause to celebrate.
The newest film in this case is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an adaptation of the young adult novel series from Ransom Riggs. Concerning hidden communities of children with fantastical powers dubbed ‘peculiars,’ the film follows Jake (Asa Butterfield),a teenager who learns that the incredible stories told to him by his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) might have a little more truth to than he assumed when Abe is killed by what appears to be a giant monster with tentacles for a mouth. After delving into Abe’s past, Jack discovers a time dilation in Wales that sends him back in time to 1943 where he manages to track down Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her flock of peculiars including Emma (Ella Purrell), who can control air and needs to wear iron shoes to keep from floating away, and Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), a boy who can resurrect the dead by implanting them with synthetic hearts. Miss Peregrine and her charges are hiding in a 24 hour time loop to escape the clutches of Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who seeks to harness Miss Peregrine’s powers to make himself and his crew immortal (as well as killing Miss Peregrine). Jake can see the otherwise invisible monster henchmen, called hollowgasts, who stalk the children, making him the key to their survival and a secret weapon against Barron.
It is difficult not to think of the X-Men when watching Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The classic Marvel comic also focused on a group of misfit kids with amazing powers under the supervision of a charismatic leader/parental surrogate. Even the title of the film seems like a play on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, so it can’t really be ignored as a coincidence, especially as the story paints the group as a class under fire from those who don’t understand them, a strong allusion to the X-Men as an analogue for various persecuted races and classes throughout the history of the 20th century. Miss Peregrine goes for more of a young adult fantasy feel (something squarely in Burton’s wheelhouse; you can see how he would be attracted to the project), so the execution generally differs from superhero fare, but not enough to shake the sense of over-familiarity that Jane Goldman’s script must overcome.
Here’s the rub, though. Two of Goldman’s most significant scripts prior Miss Peregrine are, wait for it, X-Men movies (X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past) so the hope that it would stray from its spiritual ancestor is unfortunately not in the cards. Indeed, what holds the film back is how derivative it feels, both through its direct plot foundation link to the X-Men and its superficial young adult fantasy tropes layered on top. The time loop conceit is a novel one, and Burton has fun with translating it into a visual effect, but even that feels a bit undercooked (and reminiscent of Days of Future Past) when put into practice. So many of the plot choices feel like echoes of other stories that came before, and so little effort is expended to try to differentiate itself from the pack. This, again, is Tim Burton’s fatal flaw. It’s the same sort of approach that sunk Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland, with its bright colors and Victorian mall goth sensibilities, flirting with danger without ever embracing it, lowering the stakes with every predictable action sequence (including the old chestnut of the one student with unknown powers, in this case a pair of twins wearing French mime masks, managing to unleash them at the perfect deus ex machina moment to turn the tide) and pairing it with a stultifying narrative. It looks good, which is certainly worth something, but it is so unsatisfying as a story that the visuals almost become a point of frustration, wasted on a narrative so far below their standard of quality.
It does not help that the film is put on the shoulders of Asa Butterfield, and he is not up to the task. It has been a long five years since his breakout performance in Hugo, and it seems that time has not been kind. He is remarkably wooden here, unconvincing in both the necessary wonder as he delves into this incredible world and his romantic subplot with Emma. It creates an emotional distance that cannot be overcome, emphasizing the rote nature of the story structure. Some of the other children fare better, like MacMillan and Lauren McCrostie’s Olive (a pyrokinetic), and much of the adult cast is as good as expected, but no combination of decent performances and interesting (if half-baked) ideas can overcome Butterfield’s performance and the overwhelming blandness that is the finished product. Tim Burton was an exciting filmmaker once, but this has not been the case anymore for some time. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children does not right the ship.