The School for Good & Evil Review: Netflix’s Magic YA Saga Fails

There’s little magic here, as a pair of teenage besties make their way through an epic YA romance of flat lighting, arcane twists and corny settings.

Fairy tales are generally simple, evocative pieces of folklore that tend to communicate lucid moral lessons through the power of the story. Paul Feig’s “School for Good and Evil” — which is pretty much just a reworking of “Harry Potter” complete with princesses, fairies, and a random assortment of public domain literary characters — might be the YA movie. more aggressively convoluted than I’ve ever seen. In the world of “Miss Peregrine” and “Mortal Instruments,” this thing is practically “The Big Sleep.”

Where this noir classic teased the timeless electricity of confusion as Bogie and Bacall smoldered in mid-century Los Angeles in luminous black-and-white, this Netflix mess conjures up a 148-minute blood-magic migraine as a pair of teenage besties grin their way through an epic YA novel’s worth of flat lighting, arcane twists, and cheesy settings with a soundtrack like Olivia Rodrigo (it’s “Brutal” indeed). Fans of Soman Chainani’s popular fantasy series might feel like a giant bone bird soared from the sky and whisked them away to streaming heaven, but even Charlize Theron’s Mad Hatter cosplay or the cameo of Michelle Yeoh as a teacher of smiles won’t be enough to enchant a wider audience to such a painfully overworked friendship saga.

In truth, the premise behind “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 two protagonists – and the fragile meta-construction of its source material – that it takes forever to establish the clearest hook in history: 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 kind of fairy tales people could cherish for centuries to come.

Naturally, these stories are written in (and by?) a sensitive book voiced by Lydia Tár herself, Cate Blanchett. Instead of muggles, non-magical standards are considered “readers”. And instead of being determined by lineage alone, invitations to the School of Good and Evil seem to be at the sole discretion of Laurence Fishburne, who sorts her students into good “Evers” and bad “Nevers” even before they go. they arrive on campus.

It sounds simple enough, but Feig’s hopelessly overloaded adaptation of Chainani’s franchise starter – a very long book, it turns out! – struggles to find a way to spell it. After a prologue so overexcited that it may cause many casual viewers to abandon ship before the opening credits, “The School of Good and Evil” introduces us to its young heroines.

Played by a spunky Sophia Anne Caruso (fresh out of her role in the stage version of “Beetlejuice” and still beaming with that Broadway glow), Sophie is a pint-sized blonde who dreams of being a princess and corresponds to the snow-white model that Western society reserved for work 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 bigger role at one point) is reduced to a single line of ADRs. Across town, half-breed Agatha (an effortlessly warm and regal Sofia Wylie) is bullied into being a witch, which even in this idyllic and diverse fairytale world still feels like a code for something else.

As the most stable and reserved character in a movie that weaves together “chosen” side plots in a story that’s otherwise as subtle and cohesive as a later season of “Riverdale,” it’s no surprise that Agatha gets lost in the shuffle. She also doesn’t get much attention in the ultra-rushed opening scenes, as her friendship with Sophie is only dimly hinted at before the girls are taken to the School of Good and Evil and sorted. in the “bad” places – Agatha in the Good School, and Sophie in the Wicked.

It would seem like an easy-to-fix clerical error, but nothing is straightforward in a school that, for some reason, is responsible for maintaining the moral balance of the entire universe. At the right school, Agatha learns to be a beautiful princess from a pleasantly demented Kerry Washington, whose upbeat but frenetic performance suggests how a host might operate at the Disneyland equivalent of Westworld. She meets a dweeby Prince Charming – his last name is “Charming” and his father is a king – and flirts with King Arthur’s hunky son, Tedros (Jamie Flatters), who helps advance the idea that people are more than it seems.

Most of the time, Agatha stands tall and seems understandably confused by all the nonsense surrounding her. She seems to share my confusion as to what all of these plastic sets are supposed to be or build, as Feig and David Magee’s unusually lumpy, laugh-free script just layers on incident after incident without any overall sense of mystery or purpose. “School of Good and Evil” isn’t serious enough about its world – or its relationship to ours – to mess around with the details.

The film’s only cohesive story arc concerns Sophie’s jerky transition from princess-in-training to bona fide witch, as aspiring Cinderella is gradually seduced into the dark side. “School for Good and Evil” is often too jam-packed and chaotic for any of its messages to shine through – its two heroines have so many barely written friends – but there is an unusual sting in the scene in which Theron’s sadistic Lady Lesso cuts Sophie’s hair because the girl’s beauty is meant to obscure her inner evil. Surrendering to the role assigned to her releases a darkness that Sophie didn’t know she possessed, and that darkness blossoms without Agatha to ground it.

Of course, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and ugliness is a relative thing in such a hideous cinematic world. ‘School for Good and Evil’ is never so much horror as the latter-day Tim Burton films that seem to have inspired it – they share a producer in Joe Roth – but its garish colors and blatant CGI magic only contribute to the ubiquitous stickiness of the film.

It’s a stickiness that Feig sometimes manages to overcome through splendor or violence; Renee Kalfus’ eccentric costumes pop out of 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 pure imagination. Examples of the latter include a sequence that riffs on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to gnarly new endings, its typical comic book violence of a film that often goes to the jugular where “Harry Potter” might have settled for. happiness forever.

If only “The School for Good and Evil” told a story that meaningfully established the relationship between students and readers, maybe it would give viewers something more of them might enjoy watching.

Rating: C

‘School for Good and Evil’ is now streaming on Netflix.