‘The School for Good and Evil’ Review: Derivative Magic Teen Franchise Borrows From ‘Harry Potter,’ Hogwarts and All

The costume and set designs are to die for, though everything else seems to have been recycled from J.K. Rowling’s superior wizarding school franchise in Netflix’s campy take on the hit YA book series.

The School for Good and Evil
Helen Sloane/Netflix

“Harry Potter” has had many imitators, but none so blatant or irredeemably over-the-top as Netflix franchise starter “The School for Good and Evil,” an extravagant YA costume show from “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig that follows two friends to an elite academy where the heroes and villains of future fairy tales are trained. The whole idea derives from a book series by Soman Chainani, though it’s obvious where it really comes from: the imagination of J.K. Rowling, who must be positively livid watching what looks like the most expensive episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” ever produced.

Feig goes full camp here, casting Kerry Washington and Charlize Theron to play the decked-out divas who oversee the enchanted institution’s two sides. The former embodies Professor Dovey, a prissy headmistress in Tweety Bird-yellow threads, who’s always going on about the rules, while Theron’s evil-minded Lady Lesso takes her fashion cues from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Joined by Laurence Fishburne (as the Morpheus-like School Master), Michelle Yeoh (largely wasted as some kind of beauty instructor) and Cate Blanchett (in voice only, as the film’s self-aware narrator), these stars have been given carte blanche to chew the scenery.

And what scenery it is! As imagined by production designer Andy Nicholson, the castle that contains both schools is ornately Gothic in the evildoers’ quarters and accented with art nouveau details for the good boys and girls. How are the two groups separated? To understand this, we turn to misfit friends Sophie and Agatha, who live in the grimy medieval town of Gavaldon, where they’re routinely bullied and accused of being witches. “Princess-haired” Sophie (stage prodigy Sophia Anne Caruso of “Beetlejuice”) is tired of such mistreatment, so she makes a wish to be whisked away. Faster than you can say “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” they’re being snatched up by a skeletal bird called a stymph and air-dropped into their respective halves of the castle.

Stuck on the evil side, Sophie swears she’s been wrongly assigned, whereas Agatha (Sofia Wylie, described as Goth-like in the books, but here more of a tomboy with her wild hair and men’s trousers) seems surprised to have landed among the good kids. The School Master insists that the School never makes mistakes, but there’s obviously something sinister at work here, considering that the overdesigned and underdefined movie’s lame villain, Rafal (Kit Young), is always lurking around stirring up blood magic.

The two new girls are described as “readers,” since their only exposure to magic till now has been through books, whereas the other students are all descendants of famous fairy-tale characters — like Tedros (Jamie Flatters), the cocky son of King Arthur, who immediately catches Sophie’s eye. Just one problem: They’re on opposite sides of the castle. Agatha pledges to help her friend prove her goodness, but it doesn’t take long for Sophie’s true nature to emerge. As she discovers her inner magic, once-blonde Sophie transforms into a wicked hag — a clever twist on the genre’s typical princess makeover — before declaring war on her rivals.

Even at 146 minutes, the movie seems to be racing through all the early expository scenes, depriving audiences of a much-needed sense of discovery. Sure, it’s a “Harry Potter” rip-off, but had Feig taken the time to let the film breathe, it might have stood on its own. Unlike Hogwarts, where fresh surprises lay waiting around every corner, this school seems to exist in concept only — and not a particularly good one at that. Chainani suggests that all the heroes of literature, from Cinderella to Aladdin, studied here, but it’s no place for readers. In the end, the nepotistic institution feels more like a boarding school for their brats.

‘The School for Good and Evil’ Review: Derivative Magic Teen Franchise Borrows From ‘Harry Potter,’ Hogwarts and All

Reviewed on Netflix, Oct. 12, 2022. MPA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 146 MIN.

  • Production: A Netflix release and presentation of a Roth Kirschenbaum, Feigco Entertainment, Jane Startz production. Producers: Joe Roth, Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Laura Fischer, Paul Feig, Jane Startz. Executive producers: Stephen Jones, Zack Roth, Chris Castaldi, Soman Chainani, Patricia Riggen.
  • Crew: Director: Paul Feig. Screenplay: David Magee, Paul Feig, based on the book by Soman Chainani. Camera: John Schwartzman. Editor: Brent White. Music: Theodore Shapiro.
  • With: Sophia Anne Caruso, Sofia Wylie, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Flatters, Kit Young, Earl Cave, Demi Isaac Oviawe, Freya Parks, Kaitlyn Akinpelumi, Holly Sturton, Emma Lau, Briony Scarlett, Rosie Graham, Ally Cubb, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney, Oliver Watson, Mark Heap, Ali Khan, Patti LuPone, Myles Kamwendo, Cate Blanchett, Rachel Bloom, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron.