Credit: John Wilson / Netflix
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Streaming Scene

Damsel — Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

March 8, 2024

People are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of AI infiltrating creative work, turning humans into unnecessary appendages in the process of making movies, art, music, etc. But maybe that process is already further along than we care to admit; witness the newest Netflix super-production, a Frankenstein’s Monster assembled from scattered pieces of pop culture detritus and processed through a digital content pipeline that flattens everything it touches into the same murky smear. Does it matter that Damsel is directed by the once-intriguing Juan Carlos Fresnadillo? Or that it was photographed by Larry Fong, collaborator on some of Zack Snyder’s most visually distinctive projects? The fact that it looks almost exactly like The School of Good and Evil or a random episode of Wednesday suggests that no human hand is more powerful than the Netflix production apparatus. Call it a “house style” if you’re feeling generous, or perhaps an algorithmic closed loop.

This kind of girl-power, fractured fairy tale setup is at least a decade past its sell-by date, but no one tell the streamers that. Here, homegrown Netflix ingenue Millie Bobby Brown plays Princess Elodie; her father, the king (Ray Winstone), and step-mother Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett) preside over a poor kingdom whose inhabitants are fleeing in the face of dwindling resources and a harsh, unending winter. Salvation comes in the form of Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright) and her son, Prince Henry (Nick Robinson). Henry and Elodie will wed, binding the two kingdoms. Elodie is skeptical; she’s headstrong and wants to see the world, not settle down. But she’s compelled to help her subjects, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Henry is both handsome and charming. Soon, the two are married, but there’s a catch — a second, secret ceremony follows the traditional wedding. It’s explained to Elodie by Queen Isabelle that a great dragon shares this land, and to appease it, there must be a sacrifice every generation. Of course, this is presented as a kind of myth, a long-standing ceremonial tradition that must be kept up with. At least Elodie takes it as such, right up to the moment that Henry picks her up and pitches her down a deep, dark hole. Now, our heroine must evade a fire-breathing dragon, while traversing a maze-like cave system in an effort to escape. In the film’s one genuinely inspired choice, the dragon is voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo, her stentorian cadence instantly recognizable even when coming out of a fully CGI critter. Will Elodie survive? And what secret is the dragon hiding down there in the murky depths? The answers won’t surprise you.

This is all easily digestible, inoffensive stuff. There’s Game of Thrones DNA all over Damsel, but also other, slightly older movies like Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent, where fairy tales have been updated with state-of-the-art effects and ushered into the era of endless IP extension. Damsel looks expensive, but in a worked-over, inexpressive kind of way. The dark interiors of the cave sets are done no favors by streaming compression, and Brown’s charms as a performer are dampened by a clumsy accent. Streamers use the phrase “second screen” often, the idea that viewers are looking at their phones or laptops while only partially paying attention to whatever they are ostensibly watching. Damsel is the nadir of this particular trend, every plot point doled out in deadening exposition and then repeated again just to be safe. Much is made of Elodie’s propensity for puzzles and mazes, so of course she must figure out that the caves are a sort of maze. And so it follows that the film must flashback to every place she’s been while in the caves, just to hammer it home, even though the filmmakers are unable or unwilling to chart the geography visually — all telling, no showing. Here, then, is a fantasy-adventure tale that is neither fantastical nor adventurous, let alone exciting. Given the state of Netflix, we can only be thankful that this is a feature-length film rather than an endless 10-episode series. Then again, you probably wouldn’t pay much attention to it in either form.

DIRECTOR: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo;  CAST: Millie Bobby Brown, Ray Winstone, Nick Robinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  IN THEATERS/STREAMINGMarch 8;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.