March 19, 2024

Review: Damsel

Damsel is a Netflix fantasy film that takes the "damsel-in-distress" cliche and turns it inside out: Elodie, as portrayed by Stranger Things and Enola Holmes star Millie Bobby Brown, not only saves herself and brings about the downfall of those who tried to murder her, she does it without a romance in sight. She fights the dragon to save her sister, and in the memory of all the other innocent girls who have been sacrificed to the creature over the years. 

Needless to say, Brown is the best thing about this movie. She saves herself through intelligence, tenacity and planning, not so much physicality, even though she wields a sword at the end. (And her character has a fair amount of upper-body strength, as evidenced the first time we see her, when she is chopping up firewood and splitting fairly thick logs in half with an axe. This comes into play with the ordeals that follow, which include her pulling herself out of a cave via a dangling rope and using a crown abandoned by a previous sacrificial princess to climb a cliff face studded with crystals.)

Unfortunately, the plot has a fair amount of holes in it, of the kind which propel the action along fine while you are watching it, but make no sense at the end. For example, the island kingdom of Aurea sends out people each generation to find outland brides for its princes--three of them--because this is the price demanded by the island's resident dragon after a long-ago king slew her three infant dragonets just as they were hatching. This has been enabled by the kings and queens of Aurea for generations, and in fact the hapless Prince Henry, who our protagonist Elodie is unwittingly roped into marrying, protests when confronted that after he has worked his way through his three sacrificial lambs, he will be free to "marry who he wants." This is of course sick, and there is nothing at all redeeming about Henry or his mother the queen (played by a rather wasted, if suitably nasty, Robin Wright)--the viewer is happy to see them get their comeuppance at the end, when the dragon burns down the castle. But I wondered: why in the heck didn't the dragon do that in the first place? 

(The answer, of course, is if she had, we wouldn't have a story.) 

As far as that goes, the dragon is not a terribly sympathetic character either, even though Elodie sort-of befriends her and exposes the deception she has labored under for all those generations. You see, she demanded sacrifices of "royal blood," and to fulfill that demand, the kings and queens of Aurea devised a workaround ritual at each wedding--the new bride's and groom's palms are cut and their blood minged, so when the brides are thrown down into the dragon's cave (and that fall alone, frankly, should have killed them, breaking their legs and/or backs, taking them out long before the dragon got to them) they smelled like royalty. Which is plausible enough, I suppose, but it doesn't change the fact that the dragon has been hunting those girls down and killing them for generations, exacting a revenge far beyond the original offense. (In fact, one scene has Elodie finding a cave chamber where all the previous girls have written their names on the wall, and there's at least thirty or so names there. The cave is also riddled with skeletons and charred bodies. The fact that the dragon is pretty much absolved of all this at the end left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. The dragon also kills Elodie's father after he changes his mind about what he has done and lowers himself into the cave to rescue her, and Elodie says nothing to the dragon about this. I mean, really?)

Another thing that bugged me is when Elodie went back into the cave at the end to rescue her sister and picks up her father's sword to fight the dragon, the dragon doesn't, you know, stand back and flame her? Instead she allows Elodie to get close enough to do some damage with said sword? I kept thinking, for crying out loud, why are you letting this puny human run up to you? Especially when earlier in the film the dragon pursued Elodie down the cave tunnels and sent gouts of flame after her (which also should have killed her, sucking up all the oxygen). Of course, this was the third act final confrontation, and we had to have a bit of suspense here, but it seemed way too transparent and manipulative to me. 

(The dragon is voiced by the great Shohreh Agdashloo, late of The Expanse--which frankly you would be better off watching than this--and the creature CGI wasn't too bad, considering how much there was of it. The cat-and-mouse scenes in the cave with Elodie and the dragon are well paced and shot, and are the best scenes in the film.)

To the extent that this film impresses, Millie Bobby Brown carries it. Angela Bassett is completely wasted in a thankless role as Elodie's stepmother, which is another thing that bugged me--you've got Angela Fucking Bassett in your movie and don't use her? *headdesk* It was a pleasant enough way to pass a Saturday night, but I'm glad I didn't see it in the theater. It's already fading from my mind, and I'm not going to remember it at the end of the year (unlike, say, Dune: Part Two, which I saw on an IMAX screen and loved). 

If you subscribe to the "stars" ratings theory, this would come in at two. Barely. It was okay, nothing more. 

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