8th March 2024

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

3 Comments on “Damsel review: Millie Bobby Brown-led Netflix movie is in distress

24th March 2024 at 7:44 pm

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.

1st April 2024 at 5:12 pm

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.

Akhil Arora
11th April 2024 at 5:26 pm

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.


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