3.5

Tedious Harry Potter Wannabe The School for Good and Evil Is Thoroughly Unoriginal

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Tedious <I>Harry Potter</i> Wannabe <i>The School for Good and Evil</i> Is Thoroughly Unoriginal

Warner Bros. has Harry Potter. Lionsgate has The Hunger Games. Now, Netflix (regrettably) has The School for Good and Evil. Though the streamer has seen enormous success in adapting Young Adult fiction in recent years—To All the Boys, The Kissing Booth, 13 Reasons Why, Heartstopper—its latest venture into the teen fantasy market is an agonizing two-and-a-half-hour experience drawn out by lackluster VFX and familiar narrative elements.

Based on the bestselling children’s book series by Soman Chainani, The School for Good and Evil tells the story of two unlikely companions: Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie). Sophie is the traditional Disney princess type. When she’s first introduced, we watch the glitzy teen spend her time reading fairy tale books, speaking to forest animals and dreaming of a magical life. Agatha, on the other hand, embraces her analytical side. Taking wardrobe cues from princes of yore, the rational Agatha acts as an anchor, keeping Sophie grounded during moments of recklessness and passion. When the duo find themselves clutched between the claws of a giant bird-like creature, they are transported from their quiet town of Gavaldon to the enchanted School for Good and Evil, an institution that has educated legendary storybook characters for ages. Trouble ensues when Sophie is dropped off at the School for Evil and Agatha at the School for Good, a decision the girls are certain is a mistake. As the film progresses, and Sophie becomes influenced by an evil force, the best friends are placed on opposite sides of a magical battle.

The film has all the makings of a hit YA franchise: A star-studded roster that boasts names like Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron, Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett; a seasoned filmmaker (Paul Feig) whose track record includes works like Bridesmaids and Freaks and Geeks; timely lessons about the power of female friendship and the dangers of polarization. Its execution, however, is anything but spellbinding. The academy itself, the proud alma mater of famous figures like Snow White and King Arthur, is a poor amalgamation of Hogwarts and every high school ever depicted in straight-to-television Disney Channel movies. Visually, the two cohorts are textbook “good” and “bad.” The Evil side is chock-full of gothic students with all-black attire and even blacker hair. The Good is packed with pastel princess dresses, roses and blonde curls. It’s very “Hot Topic kids of 2000s meets trust fund influencers of Cottagecore TikTok”—and both sides are equally insufferable.

The supposed children of fairy tale legends such as Robin Hood and the Wicked Witch (yes, a lot like Disney’s Descendants), the students are entitled and egotistical. Likewise, the teachers are blatant imitations of Harry Potter’s instructional staff. Lady Lesso (Charlize Theron), Dean of the School for Evil, possesses the same cold exterior as Slytherin’s Snape. Professor Dovey (Kerry Washington) holds impossible standards and theatrical mannerisms, making her a cross between Dolores Umbridge and Professor Trelawney. Even Hagrid, the gentle half-giant is ripped off by an enormous, rag-wearing gnome. Classroom scenes have been taken straight out of Rowling’s boarding school, with no sense of originality. The concept of the two separate schools within a single institution is eerily similar to Hogwarts’ four-house system and children getting placed in either Good or Evil based on their nature is just like the Sorting Hat.

Considering that the eight-film Harry Potter series made over $7 billion in box office alone (not to mention the money made from merchandise, theme park attractions and spin-off series), it’s easy to see why Netflix would be interested in paying Feig and an all-star cast to make their own school of sorcery. Beyond the usual financial incentives for adapting YA fiction, this particular cultural moment feels especially ripe for whisking away disillusioned Potter fans who are searching for a familiar fantasy world devoid of stained legacies and transphobic authors.

That said, although Good and Evil takes narrative and character cues from Rowling, it forgets the more overlooked cinematic elements that made Potter’s world so mesmerizing. Take the film’s auditory landscape for example: Feig opts for a soundtrack with hits from young artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish over an original score. During one of the film’s most important fight sequences, a sultry cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” plays. A moment that is supposed to deliver a gut punch of betrayal and hurt instead feels like something straight out of Edgar Wright’s campy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—tonally confusing to say the least. I’m generally a fan of these songs, but “Brutal” and “You Should See Me in a Crown” do little to contribute to the worldbuilding necessary for a successful fantasy franchise. Having popular artists play over pivotal scenes silences the film’s chances for a unique voice, making it hard to identify what exactly belongs to The School for Good and Evil and what is merely a reproduction of popular culture.

Once the friends reach the academy, the film loses a clear structure. From here, various subplots and resolutions are rushed through, like a dizzying SparksNotes chapters summary, and the bigger picture is lost. Hoards of nonessential storylines—Lesso’s past romance and dark history, Sophie’s quest to get a boy’s attention, Agatha’s friendship with a ginger-haired student—fail to extract excitement or an emotional reaction as they are given no chance to breathe. The long stretch of time between the film’s beginning and conclusion is a strange purgatory of trivial scenes that don’t add to or strengthen its plot: Its 147-minute runtime is completely unjustifiable.

The School for Good and Evil is juvenile, over-the-top and campy in all the worst ways. It’s too busy trying to combine TikTok fashion with Top 40 music and popular children’s fantasy films to create any visual, musical or narrative distinction for itself. Its final scene teases a sequel, but it’s difficult to imagine The School for Good and Evil becoming even half as bewitching or influential as the YA series it’s trying so hard to be.

Director: Paul Feig
Writer: David Magee, Paul Feig
Starring: Sofia Wylie, Sophia Anne Caruso, Kit Young, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron
Release Date: October 19, 2022 (Netflix)


Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.