There’s little magic here, as a pair of teenage besties weave their way through the flat lighting, arcane plot twists, and cheesy set pieces of an epic YA novel.
Fairy tales tend to be simple and evocative pieces of folklore that tend to convey clear moral lessons through the power of the story. Paul Feig’s star-studded The School for Good and Evil — which is pretty much just a Harry Potter rewrite with princesses, fairies, and a random assortment of literary characters from the public domain — might be the most aggressively convoluted YA film be that i’ve ever seen. In the world of Miss Peregrine and The Mortal Instruments, that thing is practically The Big Sleep.
Where that noir classic teased timeless electricity from confusion as Bogie and Bacall smolder through mid-century Los Angeles in glowing black and white, this Netflix boondoggle conjures a 148-minute migraine of blood magic as two teenage besties wince through the dim lighting of an epic YA novel, arcane plot twists and cheesy set pieces with soundtracks from the likes of Olivia Rodrigo (it is “Brutal” indeed). Fans of Soman Chainani’s popular fantasy series may feel like a giant bone bird is about to swoop out of the sky and carry them into the pouring sky, but even Charlize Theron’s Mad Hatter cosplay or Michelle Yeoh’s cameo as the Professor of Smiles won’t be enough, to enchant a wider audience to such a painfully reworked friendship saga.
In truth, the premise behind The School for Good and Evil isn’t particularly difficult to explain, but the film is so committed to the We’re Not in Kansas anymore perspective of its two protagonists – and the flimsy meta-construct of its source material – that it takes forever to find the story’s clearest catch: Somewhere in the folds of Once Upon a Time was a Magical Academy, where students train to become heroes and villains worthy of inspiring the kind of fairy tales that people could appreciate for centuries to come.
Of course, these stories are written in (and by?) a sentient book, voiced by Lydia Tár herself, Cate Blanchett. Instead of muggles, the non-magical normies are considered “readers”. And rather than being dictated by ancestry alone, invitations to the School for Good and Evil appear to be at the sole discretion of Laurence Fishburne, who divides his students into good “evers” and evil “nevers” before they even arrive on campus.
That seems simple enough, but Feig’s hopelessly cluttered adaptation of Chainani’s franchise starter – a very long book, it turns out! – struggles to find a way to spell it. After a prologue so over the top that many casual viewers might abandon ship before the opening credits, The School for Good and Evil introduces us to its young heroines.
Played by the plucky Sophia Anne Caruso (fresh from her role in the stage version of Beetlejuice and still sparkling in Broadway glory), Sophie is a little blonde who dreams of being a princess, and that’s exactly what the snow-white suits Model Western society reserved this job long before the days of Walt Disney. Unfortunately, Sophie’s mean stepmother treats her with disdain, while her widowed father (Rob Delaney, who must have played a bigger role at some point) is reduced to a single ADR line. Across town, multiracial Agatha (a warmhearted and effortlessly regal Sofia Wylie) is bullied for being a witch, which even in this idyllically diverse fairytale world still feels like code for something else.
As the most consistent and reticent character in a film that weaves parallel “Chosen One” plots into a story that’s otherwise as subtle and coherent as a later season of Riverdale, it’s no surprise that Agatha gets lost in the muddle. She doesn’t take much of the spotlight in the rushed opening scenes either, as her friendship with Sophie is only vaguely hinted at before the girls are taken to the Good and Evil School and sorted into the “wrong” places – Agatha in the good school and Sophie in the bad.
That seems like an easy typo to fix, but nothing is easy in a school that for some reason is responsible for maintaining the moral balance of the entire universe. At good school, Agatha learns how to be a beautiful princess from a pleasantly delusional Kerry Washington, whose upbeat but frantic performance hints at how a host in the Disneyland equivalent of Westworld might function. She meets a dweeby Prince Charming – his last name is “Charming” and his father is a king – and flirts with King Arthur’s handsome son Tedros (Jamie Flatters), who promotes the idea that people are more than meets the eye .
Most of the time, Agatha stands around, understandably looking confused by all the nonsense around her. She seems to share my confusion about what all those plastic set pieces are supposed to be for or what to build on, since Feig and David Magee’s clunky and uncharacteristically laughable script just layers incident upon incident, with no overarching sense of mystery or purpose. “School of Good and Evil” doesn’t take their world – or their relationship to ours – seriously enough to poke fun at the details.
The film’s only consistent narrative arc concerns Sophie’s abrupt transition from princess-in-training to real-life witch, while aspiring Cinderella is gradually seduced by the dark side. The School for Good and Evil is often too cluttered and chaotic for any of its messages to bleed through — both heroines have so many barely-written friends — but the scene in which Theron’s sadistic Lady Lesso chops off has an unusual sting in Sophie’s Hair, because the girl’s beauty supposedly masks her inner evil. Surrendering to the role she was assigned unleashes a darkness Sophie didn’t know she possessed, and that darkness thrives without Agatha around to ground it.
Of course, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and ugliness is relative in such a hideous movie world. The School for Good and Evil is never quite the eyesore of the modern-day Tim Burton movies that seem to have inspired it — they share a producer in Joe Roth — but its garish colors and patently evil CGI sorcery only add to it plus the film’s pervasive stickiness.
It’s a stickiness that Feig occasionally overcomes through glamor or violence; Reneé Kalfus’ eccentric costumes pop off screen (Theron’s gaze is reminiscent of the unholy love child between Carrot Top and Miss Trunchbull), while some of the special effects are redeemed with clever animatronics or sheer imagination. Examples of the latter include a sequence that riffles “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” to gnarly new endings, its cartoonish violence typical of a film that often gets on the jugular where “Harry Potter” finds itself happily ever after of his days could have been satisfied.
If The School for Good and Evil only told a story that meaningfully established the relationship between students and readers, perhaps it would offer viewers something that more of them would want to watch.
The School for Good and Evil is now streaming on Netflix.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/10/the-school-for-good-and-evil-review-netflix-1234774045/ The School for Good & Evil Review: Netflix’s Magic YA saga is cancelled