The magic school concept was a tried–and-true trope long before the Harry Potter books revived the idea for a new generation of readers. Populating one of those schools with fairy-tale characters is also a popular trope, most recently seen in Disney’s Descendants movies. But while Netflix’s new movie The School for Good and Evil does indulge all those beloved ideas in ways that might seem familiar, Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) treats the conventions with love and care, turning the movie into a compelling fantasy adventure.
Based on the first installment of Soman Chainani’s popular book series, Feig’s School for Good and Evil embraces the full fantasy of fairy tales while also interrogating the morality system behind them. Feig, who co-wrote the script with David Magee (Mary Poppins Returns, the upcoming live-action Little Mermaid), creates a dazzling world with loads of cool details, decadent visuals, and most importantly, two compelling characters and their complicated yet deep friendship. Designed to fit, then subvert and smash, archetypes, the two leads of The School for Good and Evil and their strong friendship turn the movie from fantastical fun to memorable delight.
[Ed. note: This review contains some setup spoilers for The School for Good and Evil.]
Fashionable Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and sulky Agatha (Sofia Wylie) are both outcasts in their small village. Everyone calls Agatha a witch, because she’s sullen, she wears ragged, dark clothing, and her mother makes herbal remedies on the side. Meanwhile, Sophie comes from a poor family, but does her best to appear more glamorous and important than her station allows.
They’ve bonded over their shared misery, even though on the outside, disheveled Agatha and style-conscious Sophie couldn’t be more different. Sophie dreams of a life beyond their tiny hometown, but Agatha just wants to keep her mother and Sophie safe. Then they’re both whisked away by a giant skeletal eagle to the mysterious School for Good and Evil — an academy that trains prospective fairy-tale figures that go on to star in the popular stories humans look to for moral guidance.
But much to their dismay, Sophie is tossed into the evil program, while Agatha ends up among the spoiled, glittery princesses of the good one. Sophie insists that she belongs in the good school, while Agatha doesn’t want princess lessons; she just wants to go back home to her mother. After talking to the school’s headmaster (Laurence Fishburne), they learn that if Sophie can get a True Love’s Kiss, they’ll be able to prove she’s good, and she can switch programs. At first, Agatha is a little hesitant for them to both stay at the school — especially after seeing a creepy figure made of blood whispering about Sophie’s destiny — but she agrees because this is her friend’s one chance to make something of herself.
In The School for Good and Evil, Feig plays up exactly what is so compelling about the magical-school setting. For starters, the movie is visually delightful and over-the-top in a way that’s strongly suited to the fairy-tale world. Led by cutthroat Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron, in a sharp, fitted black suit), the evil school is shrouded in darkness. The evil students, called Nevers, all wear black, ragged clothing and dark makeup. The good program, meanwhile, is ruled over by bubbly Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington). The furniture on the good track is all glitzy gold, and the girls’ school uniform appears to be exaggerated ball gowns, while the boys wear princely tunics.
Beyond the fun visuals, though, it’s compelling to see what sorts of familiar folklore characters end up in the school (the children of the Sheriff of Nottingham and King Arthur, for instance) and what sorts of things they learn. The movie is 147 minutes long, but every moment is so packed with fascinating detail and interesting characters that it rarely slogs. Each minute is another expansion of the world, revealing more about how the school works. For instance, while the good-program princesses take lessons in smiling (which Agatha miserably fails), the bad school has an “uglification” class — because of course ugly is “evil,” in fairy-tale logic.
The overly simplistic line between good and evil stereotypes in this story is entirely intentional. These superficial moral delineations are heightened to the extreme so the heroes can poke holes in them. Fairy tales do tend to boil down to black-and-white thinking, and the main characters — who live in a more nuanced world, but are expected to take on fantasy roles — recognize that there’s something off about that.
Admittedly, some of that nuance is lost when characters become “ugly” as they become more evil. And the theme of characters defying their predetermined destinies is something movies like the Descendants trilogy and Shrek have put into the zeitgeist. But because the lead characters are so multifaceted and their relationship is so compelling, those tropes don’t weigh down the movie.
Not all the characters and relationships are created equal. One of the movie’s least interesting parts comes in the form of King Arthur’s son Tedros (Jamie Flatters), who Sophie believes might provide her True Love’s Kiss. He has some flirtatious tension with both of the girls, but unfortunately he’s a little bland, a simplistic dreamboat who won’t stop talking to Agatha even though she’s made it clear she’s not interested in him.
He does get a tiny bit of character growth and depth, but any interesting notes about him are dull compared to literally every other character: twerpy Prince Gregor (Ally Cubb), who dreams of opening a grocery store; chaotic witch Hester (Freya Theodora Parks), who harnesses a fiery bird demon from a tattoo on her back; elegant Professor Anemone (Michelle Yeoh), who’s stuck teaching beauty when she wants to teach magical history; and most of all, the leads.
Sophie and Agatha are both wonderful characters. Agatha is prickly, rude, and defiant, but she’s also one of the few students in the good school who actually cares about other people. Sophie, meanwhile, is so determined to make something of herself and prove she matters to the world that her ambition clouds her judgment. Wylie and Caruso bring mature, layered performances to these characters, balancing out their flaws and strengths. Watching both of them evolve into the “good” and “evil” labels they resisted is satisfying, and watching their relationship grow and change is even more compelling. It’s rare for a high-fantasy story centered on the bond between two girls to get a big-budget movie — and it’s rarer to see such a movie done with such gorgeous visuals and engrossing characters.
The School for Good and Evil is a fairy tale for people who love fairy tales, but who also want to see them dissected and weighed thoughtfully. It’s a fairy tale where the witchy outcast girl can be a hero, and the girl who wants to be a princess falls in love with her inner dark side. It’s a fairy tale for those who know that one of the most powerful and most underrated forms of true love is the friendship between two teenage girls. For anyone who scribbled indulgent stories about princesses and witches in the margins of their middle school notes and reread fairy-tale retellings over and over again, every minute is a joy.
The School for Good and Evil is out on Netflix now.