Although immersed in fantasy, “The School for Good and Evil” gets lost in a nether realm somewhere between Disney Channel fare like “Descendants” and more epic theatricals like Harry Potter. The latest attempt to rewrite fairy tales thus squanders plenty of big-name assets, a popular book series and Netflix’s loot on what plays like a remedial course in franchise building.
On paper director/co-writer Paul Feig (best known for comedies before his female “Ghostbusters” reboot) looks like a somewhat unorthodox choice to adapt Soman Chainani’s young-adult novels, and what’s on screen doesn’t dispel that impression.
While the inherent appeal hinges on approaching fairy-tale conventions with a more modern (and pretty well telegraphed) sensibility, the long slog to getting there in this near-2–and-1/2-hour movie doesn’t turn over many new pages.
Best friends Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso), a dreamer, and her more practical and protective pal Agatha (Sofia Wylie of Disney’s “Andi Mack” and “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”) get whisked away from their humble village to the enchanted school of the title, after a prologue (narrated by the seemingly everywhere Cate Blanchett) about two brothers who embodied the ongoing battle – and quest for balance – between good and evil.
The magical academy trains aspiring princes and princesses (some with fairy-tale lineage) in the art of good, under the stewardship of Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington), which is enjoying a long win streak against the evil kids, learning villainy from Professor Lesso Charlize Theron). Both operate under the oversight of the headmaster (Laurence Fishburne), in a place billed as “where the true story behind every fairy tale begins.”
Not only do Sophie and Agatha wind up in opposing schools, but they’re both convinced they have been situated in the wrong place (one is tempted to cite “sorting-hat error,” but that’s a different franchise); moreover, each is repeatedly told that they possess a larger destiny, the ultimate fantasy in these tales, however trite it might sound, and share an interest in one of the good-school princes (Jamie Flatters), who happens to be son of King Arthur.
There’s plenty of action along the way, as well as more wasted cameos, like Patti LuPone and Michelle Yeoh. The design is appropriately fairy-tale look, from the anthropomorphic wolf guards to the sweeping castles, which, again, seemingly falls between big-budget movie and cable-network original.
Mostly, there’s a tired, by-the-numbers quality to much of what transpires, even if the underlying lessons seek to expand on the familiar notions of heroism and love. Nor is the film as clever as it could be in playing off its well-known subjects, despite a few nods in that direction, like a brief snippet of the “Sleeping Beauty” theme.
Netflix is perhaps to be forgiven for wanting a piece of Disney and Warner Bros.’ action in this fertile genre, with dreams of sequels dancing in its head. Yet if you’re going to arrive this late to the party, at least bring something significantly new to it.
Granted, that’s not an easy assignment at this stage of the game, but “The School for Good and Evil” doesn’t pass the test.
“The School for Good and Evil” premieres October 19 on Netflix.