The School for Good and Evil shows Netflix still doesn’t know how to do blockbusters

Despite some flashy special effects and a starry cast, Paul Feig’s new fantasy film has failed to win over critics. We shouldn’t be surprised, writes Louis Chilton – Netflix has never managed to crack the formula for big-budget popcorn moviemaking

Wednesday 26 October 2022 05:17 BST
Not so good: Charlize Theron as Lady Lesso in Netflix’s ‘The School for Good and Evil'
Not so good: Charlize Theron as Lady Lesso in Netflix’s ‘The School for Good and Evil' (Netflix)

Back in 2017, the notion of a straight-to-streaming blockbuster seemed faintly ludicrous. When Netflix released Bright – the ruthlessly panned $100m “orc cop” film starring Will Smith – it felt like the mad folly of a company drunk on its own success. Five years, one pandemic and three prime ministers later, the prospect of Netflix releasing a film on that scale sounds like just another Friday.

The latest expensive release to grace the streamer’s catalogue is The School for Good and Evil. Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids; 2016’s Ghostbusters), the film follows two teen girls who become enrolled in a magic school split into two conflicting factions (good and not-so-good). The whole thing is a sort of hodge-podge of different fantasy and fairytale tropes – Harry Potter by way of Shrek. Public domain IP is greedily plundered for characters: the school lumps characters like King Arthur’s progeny in with Prince Charming’s son and the daughter of Sheriff of Nottingham. It borrows, too, from Netflix’s own tried-and-tested formulas. Scenes of regal ballgowns seem ripped straight from the aesthetic of Bridgerton, while there are shades of fantasy fare such as The Sandman in its fanciful supernatural sequences.

The only problem? It’s painful to watch. Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, The School for Good and Evil is a turgid, often nonsensical drag, one which critics have been quick to tear apart. Audiences have, if aggregate scores are to be believed, been considerably kinder to it, but even a cursory look at social media will show that the response among the Netflix faithful has been resolutely mixed. For Netflix, this kind of tepid reception has become the norm.

That’s not to say Netflix is incapable of producing great original content. In fact, it’s produced or distributed a number of the best films of the past decade, from Marriage Story to Uncut Gems. But when it comes to big, high-budget crowdpleasers, it’s been dud after dud. Among the films in the nine-digit-budget-range, The Irishman ($160m) stands alone as the sole masterpiece – and Martin Scorsese’s languorous three-and-a-half-hour gangster film is hardly anyone’s idea of a popcorn flick. Look through the rest of Netflix’s tentpole movies and it’s films like Red Notice, The Gray Man, Triple Frontier and 6 Underground: drab thrillers with absolutely no cultural longevity.

At this point, it’s a widely acknowledged fact Netflix releases generally enjoy only flash-in-the-pan success, such is the company’s relentless focus on new weekly releases. But when you’re spending huge money on something that gets buried and ignored within the space of a few days, you have to wonder about the viability of the whole enterprise.

Now you may argue that Netflix’s insipid blockbusters are simply indicative of a wider dearth of decent big-budget films in the industry at large. There’s some truth to this, of course – many of the year’s most successful all-round films are just as weak as what Netflix puts out, if not even worse (looking at you, Jurassic World Dominion). But this year alone has seen The Batman and Top Gun: Maverick hit the multiplexes – two well-recieved, charismatic blockbusters the likes of which Netflix would surely kill for. Hell, even Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange sequel had flashes of cinematic bravura.

Laurence Fishburne as the enigmatic school master in ‘The School for Good and Evil'
Laurence Fishburne as the enigmatic school master in ‘The School for Good and Evil' (Netflix)

For whatever reason, Netflix’s attempts at bottling this kind of mass-market pizazz always ends in disappointment, and The School for Good and Evil is certainly no exception. A common refrain among reviewers seems to have been that the film might have worked better as a TV series. Can you imagine anyone ever saying that about Jaws? Or Avatar? Or Skyfall? It would be sacrilege.

For whatever reason, Netflix is still struggling to make the leap to the big leagues. But for now, at least, it seems bent on trying.

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