There’s little magic here, as a pair of teenage besties wince their way through an epic YA novel’s worth of flat lighting, arcane plot twists, and cheesy set pieces.
Fairy tales are typically simple and evocative pieces of folklore that tend to communicate lucid moral lessons through the power of story. Paul Feig’s star-studded “The School for Good and Evil” — which is pretty much just “Harry Potter” recast with princesses, fairies, and a random assortment of literary characters from the public domain — might be the most aggressively convoluted YA movie I’ve ever seen. In the world of “Miss Peregrine” and “Mortal Instruments,” this thing is practically “The Big Sleep.”
Where that noir classic teased timeless electricity from confusion as Bogie and Bacall smoldered across mid-century Los Angeles in luminous black-and-white, this Netflix boondoggle conjures an 148-minute migraine out of blood magic as a pair of teenage besties wince their way through an epic YA novel’s worth of flat lighting, arcane plot twists, and cheesy set pieces soundtracked to the likes of Olivia Rodrigo (it’s “Brutal” indeed). Fans of Soman Chainani’s popular fantasy series might feel as if a giant bone bird swooped out of the sky and carried them to streaming heaven, but not even Charlize Theron’s Mad Hatter cosplay or Michelle Yeoh’s cameo as a professor of smiling will be enough to enchant a wider audience to such a painfully overworked saga of friendship.
In truth, the premise behind “The School for Good and Evil” isn’t particularly hard to explain, but the movie is so committed to the “we’re not in Kansas anymore” perspective of its dual protagonists — and the flimsy meta-construct of its source material — that it takes forever to establish the story’s clearest hook: Somewhere in the folds of once upon a time exists a magical academy where students train to become heroes and villains worthy of inspiring the sort of fairy tales that people might cherish for centuries to come.
Naturally, those stories are written in (and by?) a sentient book voiced by Lydia Tár herself, Cate Blanchett. Instead of muggles, the non-magical normies are deemed “Readers.” And instead of being determined by lineage alone, invitations to the School for Good and Evil appear to be at the sole discretion of Laurence Fishburne, who sorts his students into good “Evers” and evil “Nevers” before they even arrive on campus.
That seems simple enough, but Feig’s hopelessly overstuffed adaptation of Chainani’s franchise-starter — a very long book, it turns out! — struggles for a way to spell it out. Following a prologue so overwrought that it may cause many casual viewers to abandon ship before the opening credits, “The School for Good and Evil” introduces us to its young heroines.
Played by a plucky Sophia Anne Caruso (fresh off her role in the stage version of “Beetlejuice” and still radiating that Broadway shine), Sophie is a pint-sized blonde who dreams of being a princess, and matches the snow-white model that Western society has reserved for the job since long before the days of Walt Disney. Alas, Sophie’s mean stepmother treats her with disdain, while her widowed father (Rob Delaney, in what must have been a larger role at some point) is reduced to a single line of ADR. Across town, the mixed-race Agatha (a warm and effortlessly regal Sofia Wylie) is bullied for being a witch, which even in this idyllically diverse fairy tale world still feels like code for something else.
As the steadiest and most reserved character in a movie that threads 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 shuffle. She doesn’t get much of a spotlight in the ultra-rushed opening scenes either, as her friendship with Sophie is only faintly sketched before the girls are whisked away to the School for Good and Evil and sorted into the “wrong” places — Agatha in the Good school, and Sophie in the Evil one.
That would seem like an easy clerical error to solve, but nothing is straightforward at a school that for some reason is responsible for maintaining the moral balance of the entire universe. At the good school, Agatha learns how to be a beautiful princess from an enjoyably demented Kerry Washington, whose upbeat but frantic performance suggests how a host might function at the Disneyland equivalent of Westworld. She meets a dweeby Prince Charming — his last name is “Charming,” and his dad is a king — and flirts with King Arthur’s hunky son, Tedros (Jamie Flatters), who helps further the idea that people are more than meets the eye.
Mostly, Agatha stands around and looks understandably befuddled by all of the nonsense around her. She appears to share my confusion about what all of these plastic setpieces are supposed to be for or building towards, as Feig and David Magee’s clumpy and uncharacteristically laugh-free script just layers incident upon incident without any overarching sense of mystery or purpose. “The School for Good and Evil” isn’t serious enough about its world — or its relationship to ours — to have any fun with the details.
The film’s only consistent narrative arc concerns Sophie’s herky jerky transition from princess-in-training to bonafide witch, as the aspiring Cinderella is gradually seduced by the dark side. “The School for Good and Evil” is often too crammed and chaotic for any of its messages to bleed through — both of its heroines have so many barely written friends — but there’s an unusual sting to the scene in which Theron’s sadistic Lady Lesso chops off Sophie’s hair because the girl’s beauty is supposedly obscuring her inner evil. Surrendering to the role she’s been assigned unleashes a darkness that Sophie didn’t know that she possessed, and that darkness flourishes without Agatha around to ground her.
Of course, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and ugliness is a relative thing in such a hideous film world. “The School for Good and Evil” is never as much of an eyesore as the latter-day Tim Burton movies that appear to have inspired it — they share a producer in Joe Roth — but its garish colors and flagrantly foul CGI wizardry only contribute to the movie’s pervasive tackiness.
It’s a tackiness that Feig occasionally manages to overcome through splendor or violence; Reneé Kalfus’ eccentric costumes pop off the screen (Theron’s look suggests the unholy love child between Carrot Top and Miss Trunchbull), while several of the special effects are redeemed by clever animatronics or sheer imagination. Examples of the latter include a sequence that riffs on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to gnarly new ends, its cartoon violence typical of a movie that often goes for the jugular where “Harry Potter” might have settled for happily ever after.
If only “The School for Good and Evil” told a story that meaningfully established the relationship between students and Readers, maybe it would offer Viewers something that more of them might enjoy watching.
“The School for Good and Evil” is now streaming on Netflix.
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