‘The School for Good and Evil’ Fails to Conjure Any Magic or Emotion
1/5 talking pens.
How do you know when you’re watching a truly bad movie? Is it when the film opens with multiple flashbacks, then flashbacks within flashbacks over endless voice-over narration? Is it when a barrage of expositional set-up leaves you more confused than when the film started? Or is it when, after a grueling 2 and a half hour runtime, you’re left bored, tired, and wondering how you could have spent your precious few hours on this Earth watching this absolute dreck. All this and more happens in The School for Good and Evil, Netflix’s ambitious entry into the fantasy tween genre.
The film follows outcast best friends Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie), who have formed a bond as two misfits in the small town of Gavaldon. Blonde fashionista Sophie dreams of being a fairy tale princess, while witch’s daughter Agatha would just like to get through the day without being attacked for being a witch. Sophie is desperate to leave Gavaldon, so when she learns that there’s a School for Good and Evil that trains the next generation of heroes, princesses, and villains, and she makes a wish to enroll. Her wish comes true, but Agatha accidently comes along for the ride, and the duo get dropped off at opposite ends of the school. Sophie is enrolled at the School for Evil, led by Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron, the only actor having fun) while Agatha finds herself in the pretty pink princess world of the School for Good, run by Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington).
Both girls are outcasts once more, labeled “readers”, i.e. children not born from fairy tale heroes and villains. As Sophie fights to enroll in the School for Good, Agatha can’t help but notice that there’s something amiss at the academy. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s forced to take superficial beautification classes (taught by a thoroughly wasted Michelle Yeoh) with mean girl princesses. Or the fact that students who fail get transformed into talking teapots or monstrous birds. Or maybe she’s just overwhelmed by the disorienting amount of CGI surrounding her, that makes the entire film feel ungrounded and false.
But there’s more going on in the film, much more. A talking pen, the Storian (voiced by Cate Blanchett), that writes the narrative as it happens. A two hundred year old feud between the magical twin brothers Rafal and Rhian (Kit Young) that founded the school. Killer flowers and pumpkin-headed scarecrows trying to murder the student body. Which would be fine if this magical world had rules and made sense, instead of whipping from one CGI set piece to the next. But the film seems to make up the rules as it goes along. For example, we see multiple students using magic to fight, only to be followed by a scene where the same students get their magic powers unlocked via a finger-pricking ceremony. And it remains unclear A) how long the school lasts for and B) what happens to the students when they graduate. Apparently they go on to become fairy tale characters, but what does that mean exactly?
The film is at once drowning in mythology, while remaining painfully superficial with regard to its characters. There’s a tepid romantic triangle between the girls and Tedros (Jamie Flatters), the son of King Arthur. And while Agatha’s love for her BFF is compelling in its own right, it becomes difficult to root for Sophie, whose only desire seems to be life as a pretty princess. The plot points repeat themselves again and again, and neither character grows or achieves anything resembling an emotional arc. For all its production design and lavish costumes, there’s no heart beating at the core of this utterly soulless and deeply confused film. You can spot the plot twists coming a mile away, and the film is both not funny nor is it a compelling drama. Worst of all, it’s boring, and the long runtime makes the experience feel interminable.
Ever since the Harry Potter films wrapped (and were succeeded by the far inferior Fantastic Beasts franchise), studios have sought out the next great YA fantasy franchise. Adapting the internationally best-selling series by Soman Chainani was a no-brainer, and bringing on the talented Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) to co-write and direct was similarly inspired. This film has everything going for it: beloved source material, a strong director, and it’s filled to the brim with terrific actors in the professorial roles. But The School for Good and Evil remains a dull and uninspired slog, with nothing to offer and nothing to say. Diehard fans of the book series may find something to love here, but a bad movie is a bad movie. And TSFGAE is one of the worst films of the year.
The School for Good and Evil is currently streaming on Netflix.
(featured image: Helen Sloan/Netflix)
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