The School for Good and Evil (2022) Review
UNHAPPILY “NEVER / EVER” AFTER
Once upon a time…..! The classic introduction to some of the beloved fairy tales of courageous heroes, whimsical princesses, and wicked villains. The mythmaking of fairy tales has always found a fascinating subject to all, taking the classic narratives (both the dark original ones and commonplace iterations) and expanding upon them in creative ways. The tales of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, and many others have taking root in childhood growing up, with modern times now trying to creatively twist those old familiars’ narratives and breathing “new life” with some new added wrinkles into the mix. These ideas of revisiting iconic fairy tales have found their way into a wide variety of media facets and popular cultures nuances throughout the years from literary novelizations like James Riley’s “Riley’s Half Upon a Time” trilogy and Chris Colfer’s “Land of Stories” series, to theatrical stage production plays like Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (as well Disney’s 2014 film adaptation), to TV productions such as ABC’s Once Upon a Time TV series and Hallmark Entertainment’s The 10th Kingdom miniseries, and feature films like the Shrek franchise series, 2003’s Ella Enchanted, 2006’s Hoodwinked!, and 2007’s Enchanted just to name a few. Now, Netflix and director Paul Feig take a new look into the world of fairy tale shaping of storytelling with the movie titled The School for Good and Evil; based on the first book (of the same name) from Soman Chainani’s YA trilogy. Does this fairy tale-esque narrative bring new life into the “once upon a time” aspect or is it a shallow production that doesn’t ring true to its “happily ever after” mantra?
In the village of Gavaldon, longtime friends Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie) are struggling with their lives, with the latter is being ostracized by the village community as strange outcast. Sophie, who is stuck a miserable life, dreams of a chance to attend The School for Good and Evil, a fabled institution devoted to the development of heroes and villains from all the cherished fairy tales stories throughout the world, with the young girl hoping to cast her lot in the school’s “Evers” (good guys) for a chance to become a fairy tale princess. Unfortunately, Sophie’s wish of attending such a mystical place comes knocking as she whisked away to school, but Agatha is pulled into the travels as well. To make matter worse, Agatha is branded as a “Ever”, while Sophie is branded as a “Never” (bad guys), with the two friends stuck on polar opposite fairy tale fields in the school grounds. Meeting the school’s primary deans of good and evil, including Lady Clarissa Dovey (Kerry Washington) and Lady Leonora Lesso (Charlize Theron) as well as the school’s overseer called the School Master (Lawrence Fishburne), Sophie and Agatha are sent off on different educational missions and instructions, with Sophie learning to unleash her inner ugliness and Agatha learning to polish her roughness in a gentler fashion. Looking for a way out of the school’s strict formulaic teachings of good and evil, the two girls look to find a way to break this arrangement in the form of “true love’s kiss”, with Sophie setting her sights on Tedros (Jamie Flatters), the son of King Arthur, to help fix this horrible enrollment mismatch. However, there are dark forces at work at school, with the two friends testing their friendship and loyalty with each other as each one is pulled into their respective fairy tale roles…. for better or worse.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I’ve stated before in several of my other reviews, I am a big fan of fantasy stories, tales, and adventures out there, especially ones that have that “once upon a time” feeling within its context. This, it comes as no surprise that I’ve always been fascinated (and love) fairy tale stories ever since I was child. Been whisked away (for brief moment) to a faraway land of heroes, villains, and other fanciful creatures to have that “happily ever after” feeling by the time the narrative ends. It still gets me that warmth of revisiting such tales ever now and again as well as seeing such different iterations by playing in a somewhat different manner, yet still keeps the genuine main story thread intact. Of course, modern day storytelling looks towards these old fairy tales classics and breathes new life into them by adding new material or examining them under a different light, with some having “mixed up” endeavors where narratives collide and intermingle with each other, which causes some parody formats as well as new understanding of narratives. Naturally, some projects like Shrek franchise takes the fairy tale cliches and turn them on their heads, while Once Upon a Time and The Land of Stories have such whimsical worlds collide for a grander story at work, with Into the Woods seeing several stories in a bit of different light. All of these are such good examples of what makes fairy tale mythmaking interesting and unearthing several nuances to come forth give new understanding to such beloved and cherished tales and characters. In the end, I think that of these “mixed up” fairy tale projects have always (and will continue to be) a great source of sort of “refreshing” the whimsical brand of “once upon a time” into new and creative ways to help bring new understand of these tales of good and evil.
This brings me back to talking about The School for Good and Evil, a 2022 fantasy film and the latest motion picture development that takes a look into the world of fairy tale shaping. As I’ve mentioned previously above, I’ve worked in a bookstore for many years and did actually across Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil series. It was a long time ago (I think back in 2014 when I picked up the first book), but I do remember enjoying and like how the story was presented. I think I was planning on reading several other books around that time (I do remember I wanted to read some of the comic books surrounding the Guardians of Galaxy before the movie came out that year), so I never picked up Chainani’s second book in The School for Good and Evil trilogy. Still, I do recall that I liked the first book’s premise and how it played around with premise and cliches of fairy tale mythmaking. After that, I sort of forgot about the story for some time until I saw the film trailer for Netflix’s The School for Good and Evil, which triggered my recollection of Chainani’s novel. I first heard about this new film project when I saw the film’s movie trailer that began to appear online and I decided to check it out, which definitely showcased plenty of fairy tale mischief and a bit of that feeling of Harry Potter vibes. Plus, I did like the film’s cast, including Washington, Theron, and Fishburne, so I was definitely interested in the project. Also, as I mentioned above, I am a sucker for fairy tale fantasy aesthetics, so this movie would be right up my alley. Thus, I did plan on seeing The School for Good and Evil when it was set to debut on Netflix on October 19th, 2022. Sadly, due to my work schedule and trying to play “catch up” with some other film reviews that I need to complete, so I actually didn’t get a chance to see the movie until mid-December. Now, I finally have some time and share my personal thoughts on this fairy tale fantasy feature. And what did I think of it? Well, I was mostly disappointed with the film. Despite having a good production quality and a few nuances towards the fairy tale mantra, The School for Good and Evil ends up being a shallow endeavor that glosses over its overstuffed narrative with not enough time to spend on its character nor on its world building aesthetics. A story is there (that’s to be sure), but everything is handled in rushed measure, which makes the feature lackluster and perplexing.
The School for Good and Evil is directed by Paul Feig, whose previous directorial works include such films like Bridesmaids, Spy, and A Simple Favor. Given his previous directorial works leaning more towards R-rated comedy endeavors, Feig does seem like an unusual choice to helm a project that is being somewhat presented as a YA fantasy one, especially since Chainani’s book falls into that particular category. Still, for his part, Feig does do a decent job in the director’s role for the feature by approaching the source material with that signature sense of teenage angst and fantasy mischief. Of course, some of those elements do backfire a bit (more on that below), but Feig seems to know his intended target audience demographics for the movie and makes it presented for them in the viewing experience. In his helming of the project, Feig also seems to make the movie have that same particular swagger that young adults want in their feature of dealing with magic and “larger-than-life” characterization, with The School for Good and Evil having similar vibes from the Harry Potter franchise as well as Disney’s Descendants. This peculiar concoction does indeed bred some merit throughout the movie, with Feig staging key sequences and events that have fun and amusement of toiling around with the fairy tale concept of heroes and villains, while having its main characters of Sophie and Agatha being stuck in this very rigid world of good and evil methods of teaching. Thus, seeing the events of these two characters being placed in polar opposite school is certainly the “bread and butter” of the feature, with Feig and his team carrying on in those moments as each one is placed before a certain type of decisions and difficulties set before them to showcase who they really are and fearing of what they may become. Plus, Feig does a good job in making this fairy tale sandbox fun with certain type of cliches and stereotypes being displayed.
For its story, the movie borrows from Chainani’s literary source material for its narrative pros and cons. As mentioned, I did read the first book, but it was a quite a while ago, so I can’t remember all the intricate details of the story that follows Sophie and Agatha on their first adventure at the School of Good and Evil. That being said, I did start to recall a few minor details as the movie’s story started to progress and began to remember a few key sequences that went on. Alas, that was about it, so I can’t really compare “apples to apples” as to what was added, change, or omitted from the “page to screen” adaptation for the project. Still, Feig helps stages some interesting points in making the movie’s narrative creative for some topical discussions on the nature of fairy tale, with the consists winning of the good guys / heroes leading the charge of everyday common stories, while bad guys / villains never get their “happily ever after” moments. There is also the poignant meaning that the two opposing sides having become complacent and / or stale in their respective whimsical fields and how things shouldn’t be so different and formulaic, with Sophie and Agatha’s arrival showcasing that things aren’t always as what they seem. Good isn’t purely honest and kind, while evil isn’t so wicked and unfriendly. This, of course, plays into the identity of youths out there, especially in the YA / teenager crowd, with whom they can find some type of familiarity in the movie, with Feig playing up those nuances in the forefront of the movie, with Agatha and Sophie meeting / encountering such people at the school. There are a few more nuances to uncover in the feature, but you get the idea, with The School for Good and Evil, while not a perfect film, still manages to carry its own degree on self-aware empathy of stereotyping, individuality, and the nature of some institution need to break away from tradition and embrace the changing of times.
For its presentation, The School for Good and Evil does shine impressively well, with the production quality being rather good and helps building upon some of the more fantastic elements and background imagery for this magical institution of fairy tale hopefuls. Inspired by his time spent in Budapest, Hungary (during filming for 2015’s Spy), Feig envisioned Chainani’s fairy tale institution of fairy tale heroes and villain hopefuls to have grandeur gothic feeling, with his depictions of the School for Good and Evil having that “old world” European visual aesthetics that blends reality and fantasy together in such a vibrant and imaginative way. Everything from the architecture of the school itself (very foreboding and wonderful at the same time) to the amazing costumes (big kudos for such extravagant wardrobe attires), the visual background setting for the movie is splendid and visually alive, which speaks well to the feature’s fairy tale premise. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” main players, including Andy Nicholson (production design), Niamh Coulter (set decorations), Renee Ehrlich Kalfus (costume designs), and the entire art direction department as well as the entire hair / make-up team, should be highly praised for their efforts in bringing Chainani’s novel to life in such colorful and vibrant way that clearly showcases the feature’s highlighted moments. Additionally, the film’s cinematography work by John Schwartzman does a pretty good job in capturing some of the more dramatic / dynamic moments in the film, which captures the heightened sense of reality within this fairy tale world. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Theodore Shapiro, is quite beautifully and kind of wasn’t expecting such a grand soundtrack for this feature. Of course, there are plenty of flourishes of whimsical charm and darkly foreboding cues, yet still is able to create those particular sweeping orchestral moments that evokes some magical melodies within the composition. Good work!
Unfortunately, The School for Good and Evil ends up being a rather mismanaged viewing experience, the project littered with several points of criticism that weigh the feature down from reaching its “happily ever after” potential. How so? Well, the movie (as a whole) is incredibly crammed and overstuffed and lacks the focus trying to comply a everything together in a proper cinematic way. What do I mean by that? Well, for better or worse, the movie has a lot of ground to cover in explaining so many characters and narrative threads together (both major and minor ones), which makes the storyboarding process a bit complexed right from the get-go. That being said, what’s presented sort of works, but doesn’t, especially since the story is limited by framing of a feature film. This results in the movie having to gloss over many aspects and nuances that the narrative is trying to examine and / or display, with certain characters and storytelling avenues getting shortchanged. Moreover, I personal feel that the movie should’ve been presented as a TV series (or even a mini-series), which would’ve allowed the Chainani’s tale of Sophie and Agatha’s time at the School for Good and Evil have more room to breathe and could expand many different aspects in a proper and more well-rounded way. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, with the movie’s adapted screenplay, which was penned by Feig (double duty on the film) as well as David Magee, trying to cram a lot of narrative cues into the feature and not enough to fully examine each and every one of them. Thus, The School for Good and Evil ends up being a messy endeavor, one that is filled with so many details to explore, yet only skims over some of those important details for a rather rushed presentation.
This also extends to the feature’s runtime, which is quite long and overextends itself throughout. With the movie clocking at around 147 minutes (two hours and twenty-seven minutes), The School for Good and Evil is quite literally a long endeavor to sit through, which is quite strange because the movie could’ve been quite longer (much longer that intended) because of so much material it needs to display and explore. Again, this paradoxical move of too long and not long enough is indeed a perplexing one, which creates a very unbalanced feeling in and out of the movie’s runtime. This ultimately causes a lot of pacing issues in the movie and makes the “feel” quite long and overstays its welcomed. This also plays a part in the movie’s world building aspects, which are disappointing shallow as well. The groundwork for the movie’s world building material is there, especially since of Chainani’s novel as a source material, but the screenplay for the feature lacks the nuances to examine all the rules and understanding of what goes on into at this place where good and evil is being taught to young pupils. Again, a lot of this material is quickly rushed over and only skims the surface of such nuances of what really needs to make the world fully alive. This results in the feature lacks its world building properly and kind of feels generic at times, which is strange because the narrative tries to speak a lot to how fairy tales are stereotypical. Basically, The School for Good and Evil gets downright generic and even predictable. Even if one hasn’t read Chainani’s novel, it’s quite clear of where the film is heading and where the conclusions will ultimately play out, which makes the endeavor sort of lackadaisical and a bit boring.
Another big problem that the movie faces is the overall tone of the feature and how it is presented to us…as the viewers. What do I mean? Well, the film tries to walk a fine line that has a feeling of both like Harry Potter and Descendants (as mentioned above); something Feig wants to covey in his film representation of Chainani’s novel. Unfortunately, this sort of “mesh mash” of storytelling tones and nuances gets lost in the translation, with Feig’s work coming off as contrive and a bit unpolished. This makes the movie have a “mistaken identity” feeling as it’s trying to be several things (evoking that similarity feeling), yet doesn’t quite make it and often feels wonky. Thus, the movie lacks the cinematic flourishes that the Harry Potter movies were able to achieve, while missing the mark on the campy charm that Descendants was able to create, with The School for Good and Evil ending up somewhere in-between and somewhat purgatory; neither really reaching those two points effectively.
The film’s visual effects are also a bit iffy at times, with some shots being quite good and definitely helps building upon some of the more fantastical elements at work, while other times it’s bit shoddy, and one can easily tell that what’s a CGI constructs and actually dates the feature. Lastly, as a minor point of criticism, the movie’s usage of popular culture songs feeling really wonky and totally out of place with a movie that is set in a pseudo-medieval fantasy film. So, hearing songs like “Rock & Roll Queen” by The Subways, “Brutal” by Olivia Rodrigo, “You Should See Me in a Crown” by Billie Ellish, and a cover of Brittany Spear’s “Toxic” by 2WEI in a fairy tale fantasy movie comes off as completely out of place and out of context. It would be a little bit different if the movie was trying to be a parody of fairy tales like Shrek or Ella Enchanted, but it comes off as a bit cringeworthy to feel and trying too hard to appeal towards its teenage adolescent demographic.
The cast in The School for Good and Evil is sort of mixed bag, with some of the selected acting talent involved being recognizable / seasoned actors and actresses, but their involvement in the movie is a bit muddy and feel underutilized throughout. None of the cast gives bad performances, but some do titter on the edge of that campy cheesiness, which can be both a good and bad thing (depending on how it is handled). Unfortunately, I felt it’s more that latter than the former. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of the story’s two main protagonist characters Sophie and Agatha, who are played by actresses Sophia Anne Caruso and Sofia Wylie. Collectively, both, Caruso, who is known for her roles in Lazarus, Smash, and 37, and Wylie, who is known for her roles in High School Musical: The Musical Series, Shook, and Andi Mack, do a pretty decent job in their respective characters in the movie and certainly showcase the dilemmas that each one faces throughout the narrative. Caruso handles her Sophie’s plight well and sells the distraught teenager girl who gets caught up in being in the School for Evil (dealing with hideous girls and villainy at its finest), while Wylie sells the challenges and questionable motives that Agatha discovers while in taught at the School for Good. That being said, both characters sort tread into the campy Disney Channel Original Movie vibe that sort of doesn’t work in this movie. Yes, there are moments where this particular cheesy performance definitely works, but it’s kind of a difficult thing to sell (the correct way), with this movie being a one that doesn’t work. What’s presented sort of works, but doesn’t at the same time. It’s hard thing to say, but I felt that Caruso and Wylie could’ve made their characters of Sophie and Agatha so much better (and more dynamic) than what they ultimately were in the movie, especially if their performances were a bit “leveled” rather than being too “theatrically bold”.
The same can be said with the two secondary characters roles that both Sophie and Agatha comes across in the movie in the characters of Tedros, the brash son of King Arthur, and Hester, the leader of the School of Evil coven, who are both played by actor Jamie Flatters (Avatar: The Way of Water and The Forgotten Battle) and actress Freya Theodora Parks (Jane Eyre and Creation). Both characters are clearly defined in the movie with both Flatters and Parks fitting the roles quite well (selling the character’s persona and quirks the right way), but I felt like there could’ve been so much more explored if the movie was expanded upon correctly (again, if the movie was made into a series / mini-series). Thus, the character is only given one particular onset trait and quickly become stale throughout much of the feature, which is quite the problematic area that the film can’t overcome.
Who actually stands out the most in the movie (in my opinion) are actresses Kerry Washington (Scandals and Django Unchained) and Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mad Max: Fury Road), who play the characters of Lady Clarissa Dovey and Lady Leonora Lesso, the respective Deans of The School for Good and Evil. It’s quite clear that both Washington and Theron are having a blast in the movie and playing their respective characters as the head professors for each school. From the costume attires and performances, both are chewing through their dialogue with ease and effectiveness that it comes off as a positive for the movie. Of course, much like the rest of the film, both characters could’ve been easily explored more of, but I think that Washington and Theron make the most of their time in The School for Good and Evil and end up being the most memorable of the cast in their portrayals of Dovey and Lesso.
Behind those two actresses, actress Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Blue Jasmine) is featured in the movie, but not physically. What do I mean? Well, Blanchett plays the voice of The Storian, a sentient magical pen that writes down all the stories being told and who acts as the narrator for the feature. While her involvement is somewhat limited (by design) Blanchett is still perfect in the movie and definitely fits the role of narrator voiceover quite well. Additionally, I felt that actor Kit Young (Shadow and Bone and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) does a decent job in the film as playing the younger version of Rhian as well as his brother Rafal, two twin magical brothers who keep the balance of light and dark magic. That being said, I think that Young dips into the campy realm in his portrayal of Rafal, which sort of deflates the villainy that his character wants to convey.
Unfortunately, the rest of some of the other recognizable acting talent faces sort of get swept under the rug with minimal impact on the feature, which is quite disappointing. Perhaps the biggest underutilized acting talents in the film are actor Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix and John Wick: Chapter 2) as the School Master for The School for Good and Evil Rhian and actress Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere All at Once) as the Beautification teacher at the School for Good Professor Emma Anemone, with the pair appearing in the movie, but never really given the chance to stand out as much. This is great upsetting as both Fishburne and Yeoh are quite capable talents, who clearly can make memorable roles (as seeing through their past works), but their involvement in The School for Good and Evil is merely “window dressing”, which is quite disappointing. Even more minor roles, including actor Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick and Couples Retreat) as the school teacher Yuba, actor Mark Heap (Stardust and Lark Rise to Candleford) as the Uglification teacher Professor Bilious Manley, actor Rob Delaney (Catastrophe and The Man Who Fell from Earth) as Sophie’s father Stefan, actress Rachel Bloom (The Angry Birds Movie 2 and Trolls World Tour) as Sophie’s stepmother Honora, and actress Patti LuPone (Summer of Sam and Witness) as the Gavaldon bookshop owner Mrs. Deauville, felt bit underutilized in the movie and aren’t use to their theatrical potential in the feature, with a few only appearing in a few scenes or even “blink and you miss it” cameos, which (again) is disappointing.
The rest of the cast, including actresses Demi Isaac Oviawe (The Young Offenders and Holding) and Kaitlyn Akinpelumi (How to Talk to Girls at Parties and Exhale) as Hester’s sidekick companions Anadil and Dot, actresses Holly Sturton (Lies We Tell and Smother), Briony Scarlett (Harlots and Soutmates), Rosie Graham (Outlander and Sanditon), Emma Lau (Trial and Error and Venom: Let There Be Carnage), and Chinenye Ezeudu (The Stranger and Sex Education) as Evers classmates Beatriz, Reena, Millicent, Kiko, and Chinen, and actress Stephanie Siadatan (Silent Witness and Payback Season) as Sophie’s mother Vanessa, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the film. Of course, some get more screen-time than others, but I felt that all of these talents do give a good performance in their respective (yet limited) character roles.
Two teenage friends from the village of Gavaldon get whisked away to magical school where heroes and villains are made to play a part in the fairy tale stories, but both youths end up in the wrong teachings…or so they thought in the movie The School for Good and Evil. Director Paul Feig’s latest film takes Soman Chainani’s first book in his bestselling YA fantasy series and adapted it’s for a colorful fantasy film endeavors, a project that aims to join the ranks of Harry Potter and Descendants. However, it ends up being stuck somewhere in the middle of those popular film franchises. Despite the movie having a solid visual presentation, a good and interesting premise of fairy tale creations and stereotypes, and few good performances, the movie struggles to find a proper rhythm in it’s very fanciful narrative, especially in Feig’s direction, a very crammed / overstuffed story structure, clunky script mechanics, odd choices, one-note characters, and underutilized acting talents. Personally, I was sort of disappointed with this movie. The fairy tales nuances were fun, the premise was decent, the presentation was solid, and I liked seasoned acting talents involved on the project, but the movie itself never truly came together the right way, offering up a very messy and hodgepodge endeavor that felt rushed and shallow, despite the feature’s lengthy runtime. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is sad “skip it” as it just felt like a missed opportunity, which is frustrating because the potential for something truly “magical” is there. The movie ends with the potential continuation of the tale of Sophie and Agatha and their pulls into the fairy tale worldmaking (possible hinting at Chainani’s second book in the series titled “A World Without Princes”), but, given the ambiguous reception of this movie, a sequel endeavor is vague to say the least. In the end, The School for Good and Evil, for better or worse, tries to convey a new whimsical wrinkle in the on-going fascination of fairy tale origins and understanding, yet fails to do so in a cohesive way that is more hollow than wholesome. Basically, this is one film that ends up…. unhappily “never / ever” after.
2.5 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: October 19th, 2022
Reviewed On: December 27th, 2022
The School for Good and Evil is 147 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence and action, and some frightening images