There’s a bit of magic here, as a pair of teenage best friends work their way through flat-lighting worthy of epic YA novel, mysterious plot twists, and set pieces.
Fairy tales are usually simple, evocative pieces of folklore that tend to communicate clear moral lessons through the power of the story. Paul Feig “Starry”Good and Evil School— which is pretty much a reworking of ‘Harry Potter’ with princesses, fairies, and a random cast of literary characters from the public domain — might be the most complex YA movie I’ve ever seen. In the world of ‘Miss Peregrine’ and ‘Mortal Instruments’, this thing Practically it is the “big sleep”.
Where that classic black electric timeless stirred up confusion as Boogie and Bacall soared through mid-century Los Angeles in luminous black and white, this Netflix Boondoggle evokes a 148-minute migraine of blood magic as a pair of the best teenage girls work their way through epic YA novel with flat-lights, mysterious plot twists, and cheesy musical pieces by the likes of Olivia Rodrigo (it’s “brutal” actually). Fans of Suman Chinani’s popular fantasy series may feel as if a giant skeleton bird has taken off from the sky and carried him to the flowing paradise, but not even Charlize TheronA Mad Hatter cosplay or Michelle Yeoh’s cameo as a smiling professor would be enough to draw a wider audience for such a heart-wrenching story of friendship.
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 dual protagonists — and the flimsy fictitious description based on its source — that it takes forever to create. The clearest hook for the story: somewhere in the folds of Once upon a time there is a magical academy where students train to become worthy heroes and villains, inspiring the kind of fairy tales that people may cherish for centuries to come.
Naturally, these stories are written by (and by?) a sensitive book voiced by Lydia Tarr herself, Cate Blanchett. Instead of negatives, non-magical grammars are considered “readers”. Rather than being determined by lineage alone, the invitations to the School of Good and Evil seem to be solely judged by Laurence Fishburne, who classifies his students into Good Evers and Nevers before they reach campus.
That sounds simple enough, but Feig’s hopelessly frantic adaptation of the start of the Chinan franchise is a pretty long book, it turns out! – Struggling for a way to explain it. After a prologue so hard-working that it could cause many casual viewers to desert the ship before the opening credits, “School of Good and Evil” introduces us to its young heroines.
Played by the brave Sophia Ann Caruso (recently featured in her role in the theatrical version of “Beetlejuice” and still radiates that Broadway glamour), a petite blonde Sophie who dreams of being a princess, matches the Snow White model that Western society held that job long before Walt Disney Days. Sadly, her blamed stepmother Sophie treats her with contempt, while her widowed father (Rob Delaney, in what should have been a bigger role at one point) is reduced to a single line of ADR. Across town, mixed-race Agatha (warm and effortlessly regal Sophia Wiley) is bullied into being a witch, who even in this perfectly diverse fantasy world still seems like a symbol of something else.
As the steadiest, most conservative character in the movie to parallel the plots of “The Chosen One” in a story that is otherwise as accurate and coherent as a later season of “Riverdale,” it’s no surprise that Agatha gets lost in the shuffle. She doesn’t shed much light in the very hasty opening scenes either, since her friendship with Sophie is poorly drawn before the girls are taken away to the School of Good and Evil and categorized in the “wrong” places – Agatha in the good school, Sophie in the evil.
This may seem like a clerical error that is easy to resolve, but there is nothing straightforward in a school that is for some reason responsible for maintaining the moral equilibrium of the entire universe. In The Good School, Agatha learns how to be a beautiful princess from the playfully boob Kerry Washington, whose upbeat but frenetic performance hints at how a Disneyland host can act as the Westworld equivalent. She meets dweeby Prince Charming – his last name is “Charming”, and his father is a king – and flirts with Tedros (Jamie Flatters), King Arthur’s son, who helps reinforce the idea that people are more than meets the eye.
Mostly, Agatha just stands around and seems understandably confused by all the nonsense around her. She seems to share my bewilderment about what all these plastic pieces are supposed to be for or based on, as Feig and David Magee’s uncharacteristically lumpy, laugh-free text apply incident to incident without any overarching sense of mystery or purpose. The “School of Good and Evil” isn’t serious enough about its world – or its relationship to ours – to enjoy the details.
The film’s only consistent narrative arc concerns Sophie’s jerky transition from princess in training to a bonafide witch, as an ambitious Cinderella is gradually tempted by the dark side. ‘School of Good and Evil’ is often too crowded and messy to impenetrable any of its messages – both heroines have so many friends that are barely written – but there’s an unusual bite in the scene in which sadistic Mrs. Theron Lisso cuts Sophie’s hair because the girl’s beauty supposedly obscures her evil internal. Surrendering to the role she has been assigned unleashes darkness that Sophie didn’t know she had, and darkness flourishes without Agatha around.
Of course, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and ugliness is a relative thing in such a hideous cinematic world. “The School for Good and Evil” is never quite as eye-catching as the recent Tim Burton films it seems to have inspired – it co-produces Joe Roth – but its flashy colors and starkly bad CGI charm only contribute to the film’s pervasive vulgarity.
It’s a vulgarity that Feig sometimes manages to overcome through splendor or violence; Renee Calvuse’s quirky costumes pop off the screen (Theron’s baby appearance suggests unholy love between Carrot Top and Miss Trunchbull), while many special effects are replaced by clever animation or sheer fantasy. Examples of the latter include a sequence parodying “the girl with the dragon tattoo” to offbeat new endings, its typical cartoonish violence of the movie that often goes to the jugular where “Harry Potter” may have happily settled afterward.
If only “School of Good and Evil” told a story that purposefully established the relationship between students and readers, perhaps it would provide viewers with something more of them might enjoy watching.
“School of Good and Evil” is now streaming on Netflix.