Film Review: The School for Good and Evil
The School for Good and Evil
Director: Paul Feig
Streaming on Netflix 10.19
The young adult fantasy genre has been around since long before the success of the Harry Potter series, and will continue long after no one left on earth can bear to hear the name of J.K. Rowling. The fact remains that Harry Potter is a monolithic, game-changing piece of pop culture phenomenon, and it’s hard to discuss any other entry in the genre without making the comparison, especially if that entry is as overt an imitator as The School for Good and Evil, the new Netflix film based on the popular series of books.
The School for Good and Evil begins in the village of Gavaldon, where two teen BFFs, Sophie (Sophia Anne Carso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie) are joined at the hip, connected by a friendship that began during childhood with a shared dream of something greater. Sophie, blonde and fair, loves fairy tales and handsome princes, and she dreams of a castle far away. Aggie, an outsider who doesn’t fit in, has long been branded a witch by the locals. One night, a mysterious force whisks the girls away to the School for Good and Evil, which is absolutely not a fairy tale specific clone of Hogwarts consisting only of Gryffindor and Slytherin, and the Schoolmaster (Laurence Fishburne) never seems like Dumbledore, and the the dark and brooding Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron), who runs the school of evil and is constantly moping over the fact that the school for good wins every year, certainly isn’t a lazy clone of Professor Snape. But back to our heroines: as if being sent to a magical place like this weren’t a big enough shock, the girls find themselves dumbfounded when Aggie is placed in the School for Good, and Sophie in the School for Evil. Surely, this must be a mistake! The Schoolmaster insists that it’s not a mistake, and that the only way for Sophie to switch to the School for Good is to win true love’s kiss.
The School for Good and Evil is quite derivative, owing at least as much to Frozen as it does to Harry Potter, which is saying a lot. It’s also entirely too long, clocking in at 2 hours and 28 minutes, and the pacing is often sluggish and drawn out, filled with entirely too many cookie-cutter pop music-backed high school movie tropes. What’s more, director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, the 2017 Ghostbusters, Last Christmas), for all of his big screen ventures, remains a glorified TV director who has yet to show any real cinematic sensibilities, and The School for Good and Evil practically screams that it would have been better suited to a limited run series than a feature.
That’s not to say that there aren’t elements of the film that work: in fact, I’d say that this school’s report card earns enough solid Bs—and even the odd A—in crucial areas to make up for the Cs, averaging out to a respectable GPA. There are some very positive messages in The School for Good and Evil, and while the Potter series has truly great female characters, none of them are protagonists, and it’s hard to overstate how much we need stories like this that put young women front and center. The fact that the feminine focus is handled so well-one of Feig’s strengths-helps make up for his weaknesses, which include a penchant for almost deliberately cheesy effects and the ability to stage action only if he is self consciously imitating the stylistic flourishes of other directors. The effects looked cheap and distractingly fake while watching the film on a 4K projector with a big screen, and I found the movie to be far more enjoyable after I switched to viewing it on the tiny screen of my smartphone, which should speak volumes about how it plays as a cinematic experience.
The charming young leads bring enough presence to keep us engaged, with Carso giving a star-making performance as Sophie. Still, the ensemble is hit and miss, with Kerry Washington giving such a gratingly over-the-top portrayal as Professor Dovey, a teacher in the School for Good, that I found myself cringing every time she came on screen. Theron and Fishburne fare much better, as does Michelle Yeoh in the underwritten role of Professor Emma Anemone, the beautification instructor for princesses.
The School for Good and Evil has enough strengths to earn a recommendation as a tween movie that is very well suited to Netflix, and the themes of differentiating between superficial ideas of good and evil and what the concepts really mean in real world terms are so important—and so timely—that I would encourage watching it as a family. While I still feel that the episodic storyline and high school politics vignettes would have been better served in series form, as well as that the finished product feels like a more woke, NBC two-part event television movie from the ’90s, it’s a worthwhile endeavor that your tweens will thoroughly enjoy. –Patrick Gibbs
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