The school for good and evil is a show without substance
Practical effects in film are by no means dead, but judging by current Hollywood offerings, you’d think directors are forced to dabble in computer-generated magic at every possible opportunity. This is, unfortunately, one of the takeaways from Paul Feig The School of Good and Evil, fantastic stuffed animals for the whole family that positively swim in CGI. Finally adapted from Soman Chainani’s beloved novel series after years of hellish development, it’s one of many young adult franchises that Netflix, a studio that obviously still has money to burn on a visual effects team to rival Marvel (hope theirs isn’t t like exploited and underpaid). But until someone figures out how to innovate to deliver the brilliant “pew pew!” required magic of action-fantasy YA and its ilk, properties like this will fail to stand out.
Feig and co-writer David Magee also show these bursts of energy up front rather than suggesting or expanding on them. Throwing us headlong into a prologue featuring two physics-defying brothers (both played by similar but far more focused Netflix’s Kit Young, shadow and bone), The good and the bad immediately feels both rushed to check every major plot point on his list and compelled to explain and re-explain those points. Flashbacks often accompany descriptive flashback narratives, and there’s both on-screen storybook-like text and narration by none other than Cate Blanchett, who steals scenes like what turns out to be a talking pen. If this kind of whimsical magic calls to mind another school of sorcery (which rhymes with Bog-forts), you’re on the right track. And just like those movies that will not be named struggled to condense pages of text into a family-friendly runtime, this film strains credulity in connecting the dots.
To be fair, there are plenty of world builds to introduce new audiences and dazzle dedicated readers. Headstrong teenage girls Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie) are outcasts in their amorphous medieval town of Gavaldon, the former for being a starry-eyed bookworm with immaculate blonde hair, the latter for being a witch living in the forest. workout with an unruly (and fabulous) head of curls. Yes, their hair is important; it may be a fantasy, but like real-life college girls, appearance equals identity. Dreaming of escaping from her narrow-minded village and wearing princess dresses, Sophie writes a letter asking for admission to the legendary School of Good and Evil, from where it turns out that all the characters in fairy tales graduate and protect the balance of the world, you guessed it, good and evil.
Agatha, all the way, is thrown – twist! – in the sun-drenched School of Good, while Sophie finds herself among budding villains such as Captain Hook’s son and the Sheriff of Nottingham’s daughter in the shrouded School of Evil. Stupid jock and son of King Arthur, Tedros (Jamie Flatters), wields Excalibur to such dazzling effect that he tempts both Sophie and Agatha into, you guessed it again, a love triangle. It’s YA fiction, after all. As the two misfit friends attempt to switch schools, attend their respective beautification and ugliness classes, navigate all-too-recognizable social cliques, and find love’s true kiss, a mysterious prophecy concerning the Sophie’s latent powers are getting ready.
Wylie makes a suitable stand-in for the audience (too convincingly, in fact, as his skepticism often underscores the ridiculousness of the very premise of this segregated school), and looks gorgeous in Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which are fun. Caruso, meanwhile, has fun swinging for the fences; this film’s soundtrack features Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish and what looks like yet another moody cover of Britney’s “Toxic,” and these capable young leads channel that punk-lite vibe. Feig surrounds them with a star-studded ensemble, although only two supporters get enough screen time to make an impression. As the dean of School for Evil Lady Lesso, Charlize Theron serves up macabre Bowie style with her auburn bun and heavy mascara. But given his diabolicity in epics like Snow White and the Hunter, there’s a missed opportunity here, perhaps to sink your teeth into what should be the campiest of characters. Kerry Washington fares better as Professor Dovey because we’ve rarely seen his silly side; throwing shade in lavish gold and jewelry, the actor artfully introduces the idea that it’s actually the prissy School for Good that’s home to the bitchiest students – bullies rather than the bullied, a idea teased in mean girls-the fashion.
There’s work by Rob Delaney and Rachel Bloom in a snap and you’ll miss it, and I wish I had spent more time with Patti LuPone’s eccentric bookstore owner. Laurence Fishburne goes through the stages as a wise schoolteacher, and an equally underutilized Michelle Yeoh elicits one of the film’s only laughs, a profanity-laden punchline that rightly insists even that it is underutilized.
It’s not that there’s no humor in The good and the bad, or that a fairy tale about a young friendship must be particularly poignant, but that casual moviegoers going blind would never guess in a million years that it came from such a laugh-comedy maestro belly. Bafflingly, Feig has proven his ability to find jokes in unlikely places, including in the middle of fast-paced action sequences (where is it? To spy continued, sir??). Perhaps what’s missing here is a dose of Melissa McCarthy chaos.
Instead, he’s too bothered by the visual chaos thanks to those pyrotechnic effects (should Washington’s character conjure up a flower with CGI, rather than hands-on magic?) or at least that’s what ‘Agatha assumes and explains, practically directly in front of the camera. Such is the fate of literary adaptations that attempt to unfold in less than two hours. Fans of Chainani’s books might enjoy seeing his inventiveness and heartfelt storytelling on a (green) screen. If only Feig had the leeway to prioritize his actors, over his VFX team, like these storytellers.