I saw Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children this weekend. I don’t know much about the original books, so I can’t comment on them, but the movie is a bit of a let down. It takes a promising premise and aesthetic and doesn’t do much with it. People do seem to enjoy when I talk about writing, so let’s talk about some of the failures of this particular film. NOTE: Some spoilers coming along.
To begin with, the premise is often described as Harry Potter meets X-Men. The problem I have with that simplified sales pitch is that it doesn’t really get to what makes the premise potentially interesting. Miss Peregrine isn’t simply a story about special children or a story about super powered heroes. It is a period piece with weird fantasy and horror elements. Neither Harry Potter nor X-Men are about horror. Neither is weird fantasy. None are really period pieces. It’s these elements, and not the similarities to other stories, that make the premise of Miss Peregrine promising.
The word “Freaks” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to the X-Men, but few of the X-Men are, strictly speaking, freakish. There are exceptions here and there, but for the most part, the worst part about being an X-Man is existing in a world that fears you. Even less human looking characters like Nightcrawler or Beast are handsome and appealing in a certain way.
The Peculiar Children, on the other hand, function differently. The girl with fire hands can’t throw fireballs. She can’t even control her ability. She wears fireproof gloves and when necessary, she takes them off. The twins power requires them hide their faces at all times. The invisible boy can’t elect to be visible. The boy with the bees in his stomach is constantly surrounded by the things. And so on. The idea here is that these aren’t just super powers. They’re quirks (i.e. peculiarities) that the children must learn to live with, not necessarily master. While we often are told (repeatedly) that the X-Men are stand ins for racial or sexual persecution, the Peculiars could be a fantastic exploration of living with handicaps and personal obstacles. The film never really explores that idea, and maybe the books do a better job of it.
The period elements of this are another great idea. This is a different time, a different world, with a different outlook. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see how a different world would adapt to Peculiars? Instead, it’s just so much set dressing. It’s completely irrelevant aside from the idea of the children hiding away in a stable time loop for their own protection. The problem here is that is there anything that a loop does that simply a magical pocket dimension couldn’t? Again, the books might have done better, but the movie seems to use the loop mostly as justification for having our protagonist be from the modern world.
Finally, the horror element is pretty strong here. The villains are literal monsters who want to eat children’s eyes.
Let me repeat that. Monsters that eat children’s eyes.
This isn’t X-Men where Magneto is an extremist fighting for what he feels is right. This isn’t a Bond villain out to blow up the moon. This isn’t some secret government organization out to use the children for nefarious purposes. These are invisible monsters that want to eat children’s eyes. They have much more in common with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees and the Bogey Man than traditional bad guys. Hell, even Voldemort just wanted to kill people for standing in his way.
These three themes: Peculiarity, Period Piece, and Horror could’ve made a great and unique story.
Somehow, they didn’t.
Part of this is simply the rushed nature of the story. From what I’ve gathered, this is three books crammed into one film, and that’s always going to be trouble. But if it was as easy as that, we wouldn’t have much to talk about. I’d argue, even without fully exploiting its premise, Miss Peregrine fails mostly because of fundamental aspects of storytelling itself. I know it sounds like chutzpah from this obscure writer. Who am I to tell anyone how to make a good movie or a good book? And it’s true that many of my complaints are going to sound like stuff nobody in the audience cares about, but I’d argue that they actually do without realizing it. Good storytelling is often invisible. You might not notice it, but you often sense it when it’s missing.
So let’s speak in generalities first:
This is something that all too often gets lost in the desire to create a complex plot. At a certain point, the characters stop functioning as characters and transition into Plot Robots. Plot Robots have no goals, no dreams, no inner life. Plot Robots simply exist to push the story along. Plot Robots aren’t always obvious, especially in film and TV where good actors can imbue flat characters with more life than they actually have. To see if a character is a Plot Robot, all you really have to do is ask yourself what would they be doing if they weren’t in the middle of the current story?
This isn’t a unique problem to Miss Peregrine. One of the reasons I stopped watching Supergirl was that I realized that the entire cast had no life outside of advancing the story. There was no detail that wasn’t in some way a source of conflict or a plot twist in waiting. I felt the same way about Super 8, a story where, once the credits rolled, I realized that none of these characters meant anything to me because they only existed for that story. They could’ve vanished into the darkness, and it wouldn’t have mattered to them even.
Miss Peregrine is full of this. Why does our hero work so hard to find the school? What do his parents want out of agreeing to this? What does Miss Peregrine want beyond protecting the children? For that matter, what do the children want? They are living their lives forever in a time loop, never aging, never growing up, and they seem perfectly okay with that. With so many characters, why isn’t a single one upset by this? Or at least questioning it?
Why does our hero fall in love with his love interest? What connection do they share beyond being likeable blanks of the same age? (Although, really, not of the same age, which begs the question does the time loop keep the children from maturing emotionally and sexually and if so, isn’t that kind of creepy?)
Why does our protagonist take it upon himself to protect the children? He’s a nice guy, okay. We get that. But so what? Nice doesn’t mean courageous or protective. It’s not enough that he’s just a good kid. He needs to be more than that. Especially since we’re talking about eyeball eating monsters here.
Almost none of these characters have any traits beyond what is necessary for the story to advance. There is that one kid who likes clothes a lot. And that’s the only thing that sticks with me.
Granted, this story is a tight juggling act. It’s a story aimed at a younger audience with weird and horror elements. It even sort of works for the first two thirds. The villains are genuinely terrifying and gruesome. Their goals, while very generic, work well enough to advance the story. The final showdown between the Peculiar and the monsters could’ve played out in many interesting ways. Instead, it turns into Home Alone.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if your monsters are less intimidating than the Wet Bandits, you’ve probably screwed up somewhere.
Within a few minutes, the monsters go from terrifying to vaudevillian. They’re defeated by snowballs and carnival rides. That works fine in something like Ernest Scared Stupid, where the monsters are meant to be fun scary. But, and I can’t believe I have to keep saying this, these are invisible fiends that feast on the eyeballs of children. They even do so onscreen, so it’s not as if the movie is shy about their gruesome nature.
So what the hell happened? I don’t know. Perhaps executives got scared and wanted it to play a little safer. Perhaps the director or screenwriter got cold feet. Maybe test audiences were turned off. Regardless, it’s a jarring tonal shift, including the soundtrack itself which suddenly becomes poppy nonsense in an otherwise solid period piece. You’d think an army of skeletons fighting invisible monsters would be thrilling. It comes across as silly and goofy.
After that, the movie quickly loses any horror elements, replacing them with generic super action. Samuel Jackson’s villain goes from a monster to spouting silly one liners. Thinking about it, he went from Freddy Krueger to the jokey version of Freddy Krueger that appeared in later movies. Villain decay happens, but rarely so rapidly in a single movie.
By The Mighty Robot King, I hate to keep repeating this, but our villain is a man who wants to live forever and is perfectly willing to eat the eyeballs of children to do so. That’s not a jokey villain. That’s a terrifying monster. Or it should be.
This one might be my biggest problem simply because it shouldn’t be here at all. I get Plot Robots. I get problems of Tone in this particular story. But why the hell doesn’t anyone talk to each other? The number of times characters simply refuse to share vital information, particularly Miss Peregrine herself, is frustrating.
Note that these aren’t characters actively working against each other. There’s no secret traitor or self-interested liar here. This is just people not talking. Until they do. It has no real function in the story other than to prolong the mystery for its own sake. Everyone seems to know what the script allows and what it doesn’t.
At one point, a character refers to a Hollowghast as “The thing”, as if she doesn’t know what it is. But she does. And she should tell our hero about it. Instead, she leaves things vague because it’s not time for that reveal yet. Your characters are in a story, but they shouldn’t behave like it. And ultimately, there’s no reason for why anyone, particularly Miss Peregrine who is supposed to be these children’s caretaker, should be hiding important information.
This one is always tricky because characters need not always behave logically or optimally. Still, they should be somewhat capable, and Miss Peregrine herself is terrible at her job. The film portrays her as a sort of prim and proper intellectual matriarch, but her actions are stupid and misguided. She hides info. She gets captured easily. She even has the damn bird cage sitting in her hallway, just waiting for the bad guy’s use.
This extends to all the bird-lady caretakers. Judy Dench plays another caretaker, and her role consists entirely of being confused and getting killed. The children do far better on their own than under the “care” of Miss Peregrine. Hell, they managed to defeat the bad guy rather easily.
I’m not expecting perfection. I know the score. This isn’t Miss Peregrine’s movie, despite the title, but she doesn’t need to be grossly incompetent to give the children motivation and opportunity to take charge.
The more I think about Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, the more annoyed I get. This is basic storytelling technique. It’s not hard to make an adequate movie. Perhaps not a great one, not even a good one. Just adequate. In the end, the film trips over its own feet multiple times, stumbling its way to a bland ending. Given its bland characters, its by the number plot, and its poor execution, it was inevitable. But this is a major Hollywood production. It should be at least okay.
Not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but definitely one of the most frustrating.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,