Damsel review: Millie Bobby Brown-led Netflix movie is in distress

Even a giant talking dragon—voiced by the always wonderful Shohreh Aghdashloo—can’t save this feminist fantasy survival thriller.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic with over eight years of experience

Millie Bobby Brown in Damsel
Millie Bobby Brown in Damsel // Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

Damsel—the new Netflix movie with Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown—is part of a fairly new strain of feminist films that wish to dismantle the stereotypes associated with fantasy films such as these. Its subversive claims—that this is not a story where a white knight rescues a damsel in distress—are made clear from the start. Yet, it has all the other time-honoured elements: an evil queen, a naïve younger sister, semi-unquestioning parents, and a prince under his mother’s thumb. (And oh, there’s also a talking dragon. We’ll get to that.) But alas, this 101-minute entirely self-serious tale—there isn’t a bone of humour in Damsel—has little to say and even less to show. I kept waiting for the film to kick in, to usher me into what it promised and wow me with its action, but that moment never arrived.

Never really knows where it’s going

The first indication of that comes 35 minutes in. Having built up the lore and gone through the necessary bits of premise, Damsel suggests it’s ready to throw you into the thick of things. You know, like get on with the monster bits. Oh yeah, did I mention the dragon has the gravelly voice of Shohreh Aghdashloo? I’m sold—Aghdashloo should voice every dragon henceforth. But sadly, the Netflix film is a little stop-start. Turns out, it isn’t actually done with the backstory—there’s more. What you end up with is more of a survival/exploration thing. That might sound fine but in execution, it means Damsel discards the momentum it builds for itself. Like, more than once. What I’m trying to say is that the film and its director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) never really know where they are going.

It doesn’t help that a bulk of Damsel is set inside a cave—those scenes were, no doubt, shot primarily on a sound stage. (It was also filmed partly in Portugal, but I imagine that was for the exterior scenes.) As a result, most of it looks drab. On top of that, there’s very little actual action in the new Netflix movie—Brown is mostly running from Aghdashloo’s dragon. Even when it does open up, I was always left thinking that the set pieces made the dragon look stupid. Damsel gets worse the longer it goes, with the film going around in circles—at one point, quite literally. And as it wraps, it gives into grandstanding dialogues—the screenplay is by Dan Mazeau (Fast X)—and in-your-face, meaningless attempts at symbolism.

The plot of Damsel: a dragon and a princess

Elodie “Ellie” Bayford (Brown) lives with her younger sister Floria (Brooke Carter), her father Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), and her stepmother Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett) far up north in a harsh and barren land where resources are scarce, and the people are close to starvation. Lord Bayford believes they won’t make it to spring. Thankfully, he’s made a match with the Kingdom of Aurea—Ellie says she’s never heard of the kingdom before, which either reflects on her education or is meant to be the first sign that something is amiss. After all, the match will benefit Bayfords greatly but it’s unclear what’s in it for the kingdom. Given the potential upside—this union will effectively save their people—the family of four sets off for Aurea at once.

While the north is struggling, the island kingdom has well-manicured gardens and fruit in abundance. Right off the bat, though, there are ominous signs. While Henry (Nick Robinson) seems sweet and genuinely interested in Ellie if a little aloof, Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright) is cold and blunt towards Lady Bayford, reminding her of her father’s lowly stature and plainly stating the boundaries of their new familial arrangement. Swayed by the riches and with home in mind, Ellie brushes off the concerns and accepts her new role as Princess of Aurea. But you know where this is going, right? Right after the wedding, she’s taken up to the mountains and told of the island’s past. Hint: it involves a dragon. In minutes, Ellie goes from being a princess to a sacrificial lamb.

In Damsel, it’s Brown vs. nobody

Given the nature of the story, Brown essentially carries Damsel on her shoulders. Winstone, Bassett, and Wright are tremendous actors, but they are given precious little to do. Wright is stuck in the most one-note role of any actor in this Netflix film. While Winstone and Bassett are afforded a bit more range, they are missing for most of the runtime.

After all, a majority of Damsel involves Brown and a CGI monster. There’s no scene partner. (I’m guessing Aghdashloo was never on set and did her lines in a recording booth.) The film gives the dragon a lot of dialogue but is unable to flesh her out meaningfully, despite spending 90 minutes in the cave. If anything, the dragon is made to look foolish as the film runs on. She makes decisions that suit Brown’s protagonist and aren’t in keeping with her own behaviour as a devouring, fire-breathing monster. (This disappointing trait also sticks out at the end of the film.)

Millie Bobby Brown in Damsel
Millie Bobby Brown in Damsel // Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

Netflix 🤝🏼 Millie Bobby Brown

What dooms Damsel is that it’s entirely predictable in the final third. As the film unravels in front of your eyes, you’re left to reflect on a wasted talking dragon and the royal mess that this is. Since Brown broke out with Stranger Things, Netflix has done its utmost to stay involved with its prized homegrown star. That has resulted in two Enola Holmes movies (with a third in development), the upcoming sci-fi adventure The Electric State (from the Russo brothers), and Damsel. At this point, it seems like Netflix will say yes to anything with Millie Bobby Brown in it.

But if Brown truly has carte blanche at Netflix and wanted to star in a medieval-era fantasy film, she might have done well to consult with Wright, who famously played a damsel in distress over three decades ago. A new overtly meta Princess Bride, updated for the present day, where the sick child being read to is a girl who demands that the princess too join in on the fun? Now that’s a “damsel” I would like to watch.

Damsel released on Friday, March 8 on Netflix worldwide.

Akhil Arora

Comments

4 responses to “Damsel review: Millie Bobby Brown-led Netflix movie is in distress”

  1. Michael avatar

    This movie was enjoyable ..and my takeaway was the ending is what Game of Thrones should have inspired too. Cersci should have got what the queen got, albeit slower.

  2. PEARL MOYCE avatar
    PEARL MOYCE

    This was a great movie, I found it very enjoyable, the facl that its still on the top 10 movie list of netflix shows mant agree.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed! But I would like to note, as many wise people have said over centuries, popularity is not an indication of quality.

  3. Clayton Stablein avatar
    Clayton Stablein

    It appears that you have formed certain expectations for a film you intended to watch and subsequently criticized the actual film based on the expectations you had for a different film that you believe the filmmakers should have made. This isn’t objective criticism of the film itself, but more an approach to film criticism that could be considered a form of misdirection or bait and switch. I believe your assessment of the film may be influenced by your preconceived notions rather than an objective evaluation of its actual content.

    The action was built into the tension, each moment unfolding without the need for excessively over-the-top action scenes.

    Indeed, caves can be rather dull, humid, dark, and isolating environments. However, it is important to consider that these characteristics can actually serve as effective plot points in storytelling. It appears that your preconceived notions may have hindered you from recognizing this potential. Additionally, dragons are often depicted as residing in caves. When one finds oneself trapped in an intricately designed cave, it is only fair to acknowledge the filmmaker’s creativity. The adventure within this cave, encompassing the dragon and the caterpillars, was truly remarkable. It is worth pondering how many women may have been captured prior to this, as she experienced nightmares about them. These nightmares manifested in the scene beneath the luminescent swelling. What exactly is it? A dripping, pregnant veil, of caterpillar-like luminescent substance, hiding the dragon. She endured numerous instances where it nearly boiled her alive, and as she stood beneath the veil, eyes closed, the dragon ultimately melted it, nearly ending our heroine’s life. Incredible storytelling.

    The specifics of the dragon’s demise, whether it be slaying or wounding, and the subsequent actions of the individual in question, such as retrieval, escape, or further actions against the Queen and the villagers, remained uncertain. The current state of the dragon, whether alive or deceased, and its location, whether in the mountains or elsewhere, each of these could have unfolded and we all would have just accepted what happened; and these plot elements were also unknown twists that once you saw the movie you criticized it, because you thought it was predictable when it certainly wasn’t.

    You didn’t know if the father was going to come back. You didn’t know if he felt guilty. Sure, you are led to believe many things that came true. That’s what movies are about, especially movies that are ancient tales that have been told hundreds of different ways and hundreds of times in the past. Of course, we know she’s a heroine, but you have a problem with that.

    So, you think you know how a dragon is supposed to act, huh? You think that when a human faces a beast like that, it should immediately kill the human easily the first time, and that the movie should end right there. Next!

    We shouldn’t have any of this heroine action! There shouldn’t be any chance, so let’s criticize the movie for making a movie that, you know, has to have some kind of plot where our hero reaches the plot point in which mutual respect between woman and beast might develop. Think about that. Maybe imagine that the dragon has to come to an end too. It’s lived a long life. This is its time to die moment. Or is it!?

    The backstory was meticulously crafted, effectively encapsulating and capturing the rituals and later the hatchlings. The nighttime scene and the Prince’s allusions skillfully develop the backstory. I regret that you saw a trailer that revealed some details, but that is not a reflection on the film or anyone involved.

    The opening scene purposefully hid the specifics of the backstory of the three dragons being killed, which was only later revealed in an excellent storytelling technique. The backstory was skillfully captured in various ways that you unfortunately missed. You have misjudged one of the better films featuring a dragon, which combined elements of a griffin, with early scenes alluding to Dracula (down to bat-like wings) into a modern dragon tale.

    There were scenes throughout this film that were magical. From the time she lands in the cave and notices the first glow in the other part of the cave, which turns out to be the first roasted bird, to the sudden explosion of birds on fire that look like charcoal briquettes flying into the cave’s stalactites, to the healing properties of the caterpillars that Luminescence—a Luminescence that is good on its own but that has healing properties—brings some magical content that elevates the film in this mythical narrative.

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