Don't Trust Royalty


I give NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it). shit over their movies. Okay, and their shows as very often their shows aren’t all that great. But their movies are, in general, pretty terrible, too. For every Wonderful World of Henry Sugar or Maestro on the streamer (both of which were up for Academy Awards this last year) you have a ton of terrible dreck like Bright and The Titan and The Gray Man. It’s gotten bad enough that when I see the Netflix logo before the trailer for a movie, I’ve already tuned out. The high percentage of bad movies made by the streamer automatically forces me to recalibrate any expectations I might have for the concept.

But there are exceptions. Sometimes the stream is able to crank out a film that isn’t just passable, that goes beyond watchable, and is actually something close to good. I’m not going to argue that Damsel, the fantasy film the streamer just put out this week, is a top-tier, A-plus film, but by the streamer’s own standards it’s actually among the best Netflix has released. It’s a fun, watchable inversion of standard fairy tale tropes, providing a solid female lead, decent acting, and a pretty okay story. While I don’t think the film will top anyone’s “best of fantasy” lists this year, it’s a good enough film to watch in these doldrums of March, for sure.

Starring Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie, our heroine is the daughter of Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), the overseer of a small, wintry land suffering from a hard frost and an even harder drought. When a messenger from a far away kingdom, Aurea, comes with a proposal for Elodie, her hand in marriage and her land will get all the money and supplies they need to survive, she naturally has to take the arrangement. So she, and her family – including her father, her step-mother (Angela Bassett), and sister Floria (Brooke Carter) – load up on a ship for Aurea to get her hitched.

There they meet the Queen of Aurea, Isabelle (Robin Wright), as well as the prince, Henry (Nick Robinson). Elodie and Henry hit it off, with the prince finding her a surprising and interesting woman. It seems like the two will have quite the lovely marriage together. There’s just one catch: Elodie’s time as the princess is meant to be short-lived. As we learn in a prologue, the old king of the land, centuries earlier, was forced to make a deal with the dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo) that lived on the continent: sacrifice his three daughters to the dragon and the dragon wouldn’t attack the kingdom. Over the years they lead to their kingdom being bountiful and rich beyond compare, but they also have to sacrifice three girls every generation to keep the kingdom safe… and Elodie, as she soon learns, is the second of the three. After their wedding, and a special ceremony, Elodie is tossed into the pit of the dragon. Surprised, hurt, and angry, she has to fight her way out before the dragon finds her, or she’ll be one more dead girl for the sake of Aurea.

The first thing that struck me about Damsel, as I watched the opening act unfold, was that the film was engineered to purposefully push against the tropes of the fairy tale genre. Elodie is a girl who would, seemingly, be saved by a prince and taken away to his faraway kingdom to live happily ever after. If this turn of events came at the end of her story (in the third act) then that kind of conclusion would be the story. Instead, because Aurea is set up to save Elodie’s land at the start of the story, and not the end, the fairy tale conclusion is clearly not the end of it. “Girl meets guy and they live happily ever after,” doesn’t work in the first act of the story. There’s nowhere to go from there. So there’s obviously more at stake despite this setup, as the film quickly reveals.

Of course there are other twists in the film that reveal themselves as the story unfolds. These include (mild spoilers for this paragraph): that Aurea isn’t the nice kingdom, that the mother-in-law is more of an evil stepmother, that the actual step-mother is really a good person, that the dragon was provoked all those years ago, and that the damsel (obviously) is the heroine of her story. The film really does seem to want to say that, “happily ever after is never the end of the story.” I can appreciate that.

Once the first act is over the film does transition away from standard fairy tale tropes and becomes more of an action flick. One girl, trapped in a cavern system, fighting against an evil with the odds stacked against her. I’d almost call it a Die HardThe 1980s were famous for the bombastic action films released during the decade. Featuring big burly men fighting other big burly men, often with more guns, bombs, and explosions than appear in Michael Bay's wildest dreams, the action films of the decade were heavy on spectacle, short on realism. And then came a little film called Die Hard that flipped the entire action genre on its head. if there were more bad guys for her to fight. She is stuck in a single location and is willing to fight anyone she has to, taking damage while she uses her surroundings to her advantage. It’s a solid character piece action film, one that really makes you feel, and care, for the lead character. You pull for Elodie as she fights her way out of this mess, and you want her to win because none of this was her fault.

That is a key point the film makes sure to emphasize: Elodie gets into this mess because she’s an honorable, and honor-bound, daughter of a lord. Her duty is to her people, and she holds that duty in high regard. She’s a good person, and when it seems like, early on, she’s going to get her happily ever after, it feels right. That’s not meant to be, of course, but as she fights to get back to her old life, and to get justice against everyone that betrayed her, you get a sense that whatever happy ending she’ll find in the end will be more than earned and will help (to a certain extent) to make up for all that she will have to go through.

With that said, the film isn’t perfect. For starters, it’s never really clear why Aurea is a rich and powerful kingdom. The sacrifices they make aren’t to gain the riches of the dragon, just to keep the dragon at bay. We don’t actually learn anything about the kingdom outside of their deal with the dragon, and while I guess it is implied that they gain some kind of magical riches, or that the land was once teeming with dragons and their gold is everywhere, that’s never actually stated. The kingdom does love its dragon motif, having dragons and serpents in all their art, but we never really get a sense of what the kingdom gains from the sacrifices even as it is implied it’s somehow mutually beneficial. Somehow.

Meanwhile, I feel like the dragon is a bit of an underbaked character. We learn early on that the dragon can smell royal blood and that’s how it knows that the girls thrown into its caves are of the line of Aurea. Except, as we see early, this can be faked, with a cut along a palm, and a blood exchange, marking the girls with the blood of Aurea. This isn’t really scientific, but if we accept “something something magic” then, sure, that’s fine. But when the Lord later comes looking for his daughter, the dragon should immediately go, “wait, you’re not of royal blood, the blood of Aurea,” and it doesn’t. If it did, much of the last act of the plot should, in theory, play out differently. It’s a point the film never raises, despite the fact that it absolutely should.

In fact, the dragon is basically used as a villain until it’s convenient for the plot to change that around. I won’t spoil the last twists of the film, but the dragon really should be smarter, and more engaged with Elodie (and the other girls she killed before this). The film uses her as a bogeyman, a terrible threat, but it hardly invests more than a rote and basic story for the dragon, making her feel like a trope even as Elodie is built up as a strong, capable, interesting heroine. Elodie breaks the tropes but the dragon does not.

I generally liked Damsel but I did think the last act was more rote, more formulaic than the rest of the film. This took the movie from a rocking action movie and knocked it down to just a fun and enjoyable bit of fantasy carnage. There are great moments in the film, and Elodie is fantastic, but there are weaknesses in the story that are hard to ignore. I still recommend watching the film, once, to see the pleasures it can provide. But like all Netflix films, good and bad, I have a feeling this one will disappear deep into the well, forgotten within a few months. It’s not good enough to rise above.