Young, misunderstood protagonists… A secret school of magic on the edge of a lake… Quirky professors led by a wizard in flowing robes… A villain whose name must not be mentioned… Although comparisons to the Harry Potter story are inevitable, Netflix’s “The School for Good and Evil,” based on the first novel in Soman Chainani’s popular hexalogy, is just different enough to: a) avoid litigation; and b) be nowhere near as good.
It is, however, a valiant effort; one that benefits from the experience of its helmer, Paul Feig. Regrettably, though, what we get here is less the Paul Feig who directed “Bridesmaids” and more the Paul Feig who produced— ugh— “Last Christmas.”
There are, to be fair, enough good things in “The School for Good and Evil” to make it just about worth the watch. The plot, for instance, is quite unique: In an unspecified time in some distant storybook past, best friends and fellow town outcasts Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie) discover an enchanted school, only to find themselves on opposite sides of the ultimate battle between Good and Evil. Every fairy tale is real, it seems, and every student at the school must be trained to maximize their powers as either heroes or villains. Initially devastated at being sent to the Evil side of the school, Sophie slowly begins to realize that being a villain may have its advantages. Meanwhile, Agatha— who never wanted to leave their little town in the first place— must do her best, from the Good side, to rescue her friend from her cruel classmates, the forces of Evil, and herself.
As both director and co-screenwriter (with David Magee), Paul Feig must bear much of the blame for this movie’s flaws. Chief among them is the plain fact that this imagined world, while imaginative and intriguing, simply fails to hold up to any kind of scrutiny. How, for example, do you “teach” evil? Doesn’t learning— any kind of learning— require discipline and hard work? Wouldn’t an “evil” student lean more towards chaos and— let’s be realistic here— just cut class all the time? Or, worse, kill all the professors? Why are all light-haired students relegated to the “good” side? And if evil makes beautiful people ugly, as the movie posits, why, oh why, is the head of the villains played by goddamn Charlize Theron?
And what a portrayal it is! Ms. Theron’s sneering performance (as “Lady Lesso”), which somehow manages to be both understated and over-the-top at the same time, is one of the film’s highlights. Sadly, at the other end of the spectrum, a miscast Kerry Washington (as “Lady Lovey”) is clearly out of her depth as yin to Theron’s yang. Equally sadly, many of the other talented supporting players are left with nothing much to do: Michelle Yeoh (as “Professor Anemone”) has only a handful of scenes and no real character traits to speak of; the hilarious Peter Serafinowicz (as “Yuba”), aside from having very few laugh lines, is unrecognizable under layers of latex and makeup; theater legend Patti LuPone (as “Mrs. Deauville”) is relegated to a single throwaway scene; and Laurence Fishburne (as “Black Dumbledore”— uh, I mean, “The Schoolmaster”) doesn’t do much but occasionally show up to spout words of wisdom and look serious. Even Cate Blanchett (as “Storian”), one of the greatest actors of her generation, is relegated to mere voiceover work!
One wonders how much better “The School for Good and Evil” would have been with another pass (or two) at the script, or if it had been made as a mini-series instead. As it stands, the messy worldbuilding, occasionally dodgy CGI, sloppy wirework action sequences, and punishing runtime are unlikely to elevate this movie into the next global cinematic sensation— although it should be moderately popular with preteen lovers of fantasy. (But seriously: Two hours and 27 minutes? Really? What is this, “The Godfather”?)
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2.5 crowns: fine, but don’t rush to see it
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs