• Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

It would be an understatement to say that this has not been a good week for Netflix. After all the millions of dollars spent, all the nominations they bought, the Netflix picture to claim an Oscar win turned out to be a short film directed by Wes Anderson. Arguably the greatest working auteur in Hollywood who hadn’t won an Oscar yet.

But I suppose it could be worse — last year, Blonde was Netflix’s big Oscar contender and that one took top dishonors at the Razzie Awards. At least Maestro was spared that much, so that’s a step up.

And then this weekend brought us Damsel, the big action VFX vehicle for Exec Producer Millie Bobby Brown, here starring in a feminist fairy tale send-up written and directed exclusively by men. If you’re having deja vu, you’re likely thinking of The Princess, in which Joey King tried something similar on Hulu a couple years back. That movie was no great shakes, but this one is somehow even worse. We’ll come back to that — repeatedly — but let’s get to Damsel first.

Brown plays Elodie, whose father (Lord Bayford, played by Ray Winstone) runs a town too poor and hungry to last through another winter. In an act of desperation, Lord Bayford agrees to sell his daughter’s hand in marriage to the prince of a wealthy faraway kingdom. (The prince and his mother the queen are respectively played by Nick Robinson and freaking Robin Wright. Don’t ask about the king, I don’t even think he gets a line.)

The whole deal seems too good to be true. Sure enough, we eventually learn that once every generation, the royal family must sacrifice three princesses to appease an angry dragon (voiced by Shoreh Aghdashloo) so the kingdom can be left intact and unmolested to enjoy its prosperity. Thus Elodie gets chucked into the dragon’s cave to fend for herself and we’re off to the races.

Let’s take another look at that cast. We’ve got Millie Bobby Brown. We’ve got Robin Wright. We’ve got Nick Robinson, Ray Winstone, and Shoreh Aghdashloo. We even got Angela Bassett in there, playing Elodie’s stepmother. Behind the scenes, we’ve got Larry Fong bringing his incredible talents as cinematographer. There’s Patrick Tatopoulous bringing his decades of legendary experience as a production designer. We’ve got David Fleming composing a score with production by his mentor, Hans goddamn Zimmer.

But then we’ve got screenwriter Dan Mazeau, whose only two prior credits were somewhere on the scripts for Wrath of the Titans and Fast X. And there’s director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who directed 28 Weeks Later fifteen years ago and fuck-all of note before or since. Here’s where we start running into problems.

Let’s get back to The Princess for a moment. Yes, that was a movie with pathetically one-dimensional characters and barely anything noteworthy or memorable. But at least that movie knew what it wanted to be, and it didn’t waste any time in getting there.

Damsel was made and marketed on the premise of a young damsel defying the fairy tale trope to fight her way out of a cave and defeat the dragon. She doesn’t even get thrown into the cave until over half an hour into this 110-minute movie. By that point in The Princess, Joey King had killed at least a dozen soldiers with a goddamn hairpin!

Which brings me to another crucial difference: The Princess was clearly made to be a straightforward action flick, while Damsel bounces around between “survival horror” and “CGI action” without ever really settling on any one particular tone. Compounding the issue, one was an action movie backed by Team John Wick while the other is a survival action horror made by the guy who directed 28 Weeks Later.

Moreover, at least The Princess got to show off Joey King as an action lead, something we’d never really seen from her up to that point. Millie Bobby Brown as the tenacious and inquisitive lead in a CGI spectacular? I’ve seen Enola Holmes and I’ve seen Godzilla: King of the Monsters, what else you got?

And lest we forget, the notion of a young woman barely past 18 mowing down faceless goons like a badass still has some degree of novelty to it. That’s awesome and empowering and sexy in a way we don’t see nearly often enough. A young woman running and hiding as she tries to survive being chased by a monster? Well, that could be every second horror movie ever made!!!

But if you’ll forgive one last unfavorable comparison to The Princess, it’s necessary to highlight just how badly Damsel shit the bed in the worst way that matters. See, while The Princess had aggressively simple characters and an insultingly basic plot, at least it was all done in the service of making a clear point. The villain is a caricature of toxic masculinity, down with the patriarchy, girl power, fuck yeah. Compare that with Damsel.

At the start of the film, the characters are straightforward archetypes gliding on rails through a predictable plot informed by archaic fairy tale tropes. We’re told that the dragon must be appeased so the kingdom can stay wealthy. All fair enough. Well and good. But then the filmmakers made the capital mistake of trying to introduce nuance.

Consider that practically every main antagonist in this movie is female. While it’s certainly possible to make a feminist story out of women beating up other women (Polite Society, for instance), it doesn’t work when we’re dealing with a send-up of an inherently chauvinist trope. If we’re lampooning a sexist fairy tale archetype without lampooning the men who invented that trope and kept it going through so many generations, what the hell are we doing here?

Another huge problem is what they did with the dragon. The filmmakers went too far in trying to subvert expectations and make the dragon into something of a misunderstood sympathetic figure. Without getting too far into spoilers, they structured the conflicts and motivations in such a way that Elodie and her fellow sacrifices are the only innocents here. Aside from them, everybody is an asshole. As a direct result, when the film wants to talk about matters of sacrifice, justice, revenge, courage, forgiveness, and so on, the morality is too murky and none of these statements land.

It certainly doesn’t help (this is the last one, I swear) that The Princess and Damsel both share one crippling flaw: The notion of inverting this particular trope isn’t as subversive or clever as the filmmakers seem to think it is. “What if the princess and the dragon were really on the same side and the princess wasn’t as helpless as everyone thought?” Yeah, I saw that meme when it first came online back in 20-fucking-15. And before that, I was there for the Shrek movies when Princess Fiona singlehandedly beat the shit out of Robin Hood and all his Merry Men, back when The Matrix bullet-time jokes were still fresh!

Look, I’ll readily admit that this is a marvelous cast, and everyone — most especially Millie Bobby Brown herself — is trying their damnedest to sell the film. But when the characters are so thin, they’re working from such a slapdash script, and the director is in so far over his head, there’s only so much they can do. And while the CGI is surprisingly good for the most part — especially with regards to the dragon, who looks really freaking cool — the action looks outright pathetic anytime the human characters have to interact with the dragon.

As with so many Netflix offerings, Damsel comes out to nothing more than flashy filler. Despite the beautiful VFX and the dazzling marquee names, the overall product is too confused and uninspired to register as anything more than background noise. It’s the product of filmmakers whose reach far, FAR exceeded their grasp, who desperately wanted to make an intelligent work of empowering feminist power fantasy without the first goddamn clue how to actually do it.

It speaks volumes that the film tries to pass itself off as novel when a Hulu film from two years ago took basically the same premise and did it better. And when you’re getting outclassed by a goddamn straight-to-Hulu picture, you know you fucked up.

I remain convinced that Milly Bobby Brown has tremendous potential and I wish nothing but the best for her career as an actor. Of course, it would certainly help if she as an executive producer had better taste in who she hires to write and direct her movies. As for Netflix, I can only hope the Dan Lin era turns it around in a big way, because no way can Netflix justify their steady price hikes — much less their Oscar aspirations — with this shit.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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