The School for Good and Evil, a young adult novel by Soman Chainani that inspired a series, lumbers its way to the big picture while carrying the baggage of too many knockoffs, including Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Harry Potter, among others. It's not surprising that Paul Feig has no sense of the world-building inherent to the fairy tale fantasy subgenre. Still, this is a particularly tedious trudge that is overly structured, thuddingly derivative, ridiculously long, and covered in a massive orchestral score that tries to give a narrative with low emotional stakes pace.
It was purchased and put into production by Netflix because Universal couldn't move through with it. It's a luxuriously equipped film, albeit in an overly sweet, candy-colored fashion, and maybe young adolescents and tweens who imagine themselves as princesses or witches will find something to like. All the best to them. I would have never imagined that I would dislike a movie in which a furious teen cries, "That hag is my mother!" But this is where we are now.
Rafal and Rhian, twin brothers who founded the school to keep the balance between good and evil and are both played by Kit Young, engage in video game-style swordplay at a location ominously referred to as "The Duel Arena" in the prologue that is never mentioned again. But after ages of harmonious coexistence, Rafal has grown weary of the status quo. He admits, "I prefer chaos," to bookish Rhian, who cautions him that summoning "blood magic" will consume him.
Evil isn't a team player. Rafal informs his sibling that evil doesn't share. "Evil won't prevail after I'm finished."
Cut to many years later, in a remote location, where a fresh story is being told, with Cate Blanchett providing narration at various points with her most lucid, picture-book authority.
Orphan Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) was persuaded by her deceased mother that she would one day transform the world. But in slumbering Gavaldon, change seems unlikely. Agatha (Sofia Wylie), whose mother is a failed witch with high expectations for her daughter, lives just over the hill in another cottage. The two girls are close friends who shrug off taunts from other children who label them freaks and etch their vow of an enduring friendship onto the community's Wishing Tree.
When they find out about the School for Good and Evil (from Patti LuPone, no less), Sophie tucks her letter of application inside the tree's bark folds. Aggie soon joins the ride as she is soon taken off by a gigantic skeletal bird known as a stymph.
However, the bird drops them off at what both girls believe to be the incorrect school. Little blonde Sophie, who aspires to be Cinderella, ends up in Goth Central among the "Nevers," who are led by the dean Lady Lesso, an archly evil figure (Charlize Theron). (We can tell she's mean because of the manner Joan Crawford did in Queen Bee when she snapped her riding crop.)
Feisty Agatha, who would have been right at home with the aspiring witches and warlocks, finds herself taking training from Professor Dovey while surrounded by tutting princesses wearing pastel ball gowns among the "Evers" (Kerry Washington). Professor Anemone, the local Tyra who teaches beauty school, fails students for improper smiling technique.
The School Master (Laurence Fishburne) maintains that there are no mistakes despite Sophie and Aggie's assertions that there was a mistake in their enrolment. Their parts have already been established in the pages of the Storian, a book of fairy tales written by a supernatural pen that provides an explanation for all of Blanchett's plodding "And so it came to pass, blah, blah, blah..." interjections. Sophie decides that the only way to solve the problem is to obtain the kiss of her true love, so she sets her sights on Tedros (Jamie Flatters), the son of King Arthur, who has the entire school swooning. Contrary to popular belief, dating between Evers and Nevers is totally prohibited.
It would have been a little engrossing if all of it had been condensed into a clear narrative line. However, the screenplay by David Magee and Paul Feig is so cluttered that it constantly takes us on dull detours, such as a survival lesson in a forest of dark enchantments that is led by an elf (Peter Serafinowicz) who is like a lousy stand-up comedian.
The plot primarily centres on the inescapable test of Sophie and Aggie's friendship, which is further tarnished by Rafal's reappearance in a bloody spiral. Sophie is drawn to the dark side by his menacing promises of total control. Once she gathers her bad-girl squad, cue the required glam makeover, insane cackling, and slo-mo power strut. Then, at the Annual Evers Ball, there is an all-out conflict that is too chaotic and chaotic to follow, with the Nevers throwing firebombs and engaging in other typical CG mayhem.
Additionally, it simply isn't that intriguing. Considering that the labyrinthine plot is schematic, it stands to reason that Aggie will find a method to defend Sophie and the school from Rafal's reign of terror. And good triumphs over evil. Yawn.
In a film where the comedy is incidental rather than the main focus, Feig appears lost. Perhaps he believed he was creating the Princess Bride for a modern audience, but nothing about this film feels authentic enough to inspire any interest, even within the flexible boundaries of a fairy tale. Most of the attempts at humour are so utterly unfunny that it may be difficult for you to believe that the same person who directed Bridesmaids and Spy is behind it.
The actors aren't much fun either. Although Theron, Washington, and Fishburne all look stunning in the lavish clothes created by Renée Ehrlich Kalfus, their performances are hindered by their clunky mid-Atlantic accents. Until they no longer remember them, at least. Yeoh is simply shamefully underutilised. Caruso, who originated the Winona Ryder part in the Broadway production of Beetlejuice, is forced to play a character that is so contradictory that she becomes obnoxious, whereas Wylie infuses Agatha with some much-needed optimism.
The movie panders to its target audience with puppyish zeal, down to the pop sprinkle — Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, 2WEI's booming cover of Britney Spears' "Toxic" However, it's a dull and uninspiring project that never really takes off.