‘The School for Good and Evil’ Review: A Spellbinding Tale Celebrating the Power of Friendship

We all know the classic tales of good vs. evil, with a damsel in distress, a prince swooping in to save the day, true love’s kiss breaking a powerful spell. The new Netflix movie, The School for Good and Evil, takes those timeless tropes and puts a new spin on them, to tell the story of Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso) and Agatha (Sofia Wylie), and their place in the School for Good and Evil.

In the world of this story, fairy tales are real, and children are taken from their homes in the middle of the night and transported by a giant skeletal bird to the School for Good and Evil, a place where princesses and princes hone their Goodness, and villains perfect their Evil. Unlike the book of the same name, written by Soman Chainani (who’s an executive producer and makes a cameo appearance as a teacher), the girls are unaware that the school exists, until they find a book in the local bookshop that bears the school’s seal. Fed up with her unexciting life in the village of Gavaldon, Sophie decides she wants to attend the school, and sets herself up to be taken. Agatha, on the other hand, is determined to stop Sophie from leaving their village, but as a result, she gets taken, too. Sophie, definitely a girly girl who likes to wear pink dresses and spend hours doing her hair, expects to be dropped off at the School for Good, where she can fulfill her destiny as a princess. Agatha, who is branded a witch by almost everyone in their hometown, however, gets dropped at the School for Good, and Sophie, at the School for Evil.

Sophie and Agatha tell everyone in sight that there’s been a mistake, but their respective teachers, Professor Dovey, played brilliantly by Kerry Washington, and the always captivating Charlize Theron as Lady Lesso, insist that the School Master (Laurence Fishburne) doesn’t make mistakes. If Agatha’s in the School for Good and Sophie’s in the School for Evil, that’s where they belong. Not surprisingly, it’s made very clear early on that each of the girls are where they’re supposed to be, as Agatha, despite being labeled a witch, makes many decisions to help and even save her fellow Evers (the Good students), while Sophie insults her classmates, her jabs cutting deep and to the heart of the Nevers (the Evil students).

The world-building within the story is very good, as the story draws the audience into the different sides of the school, and you definitely find the characters you root for and those you kind of want to get their comeuppance. It’s a spellbinding world, if at times predictable, but what fairy tale isn’t? Some effects, however, could be a bit more convincing—after all, there are talking uniformed wolves that guard the school, and the fights feature lots of flipping through the air and swordplay that sometimes comes off a bit too stylized. Yet many of the effects are stellar (the skeletal bird and the school itself look as if they could actually exist).

It’s not the fairy tale world that’s the real selling point here, though, It’s the performances — especially those of the two young leading ladies — that make this story work. If the actors were too over-the-top, it would be an irritating watch, to be sure, but Sophia Anne Caruso and especially Sofia Wylie really give the story its heart and soul. The faculty also put in the solid work we’ve come to expect from them. Kerry Washington is so much the blushing, uber-positive Good teacher that she’s quite hilarious, and Charlize Theron is perfection as the Evil’s head teacher, whose eye rolls at the Evers are fitting, and made her feel like a real teacher in a School for Evil. Michelle Yeoh is also one of the teachers in the Good school, leading a class on smiling. Yes, really. Yeoh brings a no-nonsense style to her character, yet it’s a shame she’s not a bigger part of the story.

Kit Young, known as the lovable rogue sharpshooter Jesper in Shadow and Bone, is a pleasant surprise who is quite good as the charming, all-powerful Evil villain. His smooth voice has just the right gravitas for bringing a deliciously evil entity to life. Even the supporting characters give their all to their roles, especially Earl Cave as Hort, the Billie Joe Armstrong lookalike; Freya Parks as Hester, whose tattoos come to life and become her weapons; and Ally Cubb as Gregor, a sweet, hapless Ever who warms to Agatha.

Fans of the book series will also be delighted to see that some dialogue carries over to the film, nearly word for word, particularly in the big showdown scene. While this film could stand alone, since there are six books in the series, the film’s happily-ever-after ending leaves the door open for a potential sequel. Perhaps the film’s most endearing aspect is its overall message: almost no one is inherently all good or purely evil, we’re all just people trying our best. Though the schools are very clearly divided, there are some Evers who are pretty dang evil — Beatrix (Holly Sturton), I’m looking at you — and some Nevers who really aren’t all that bad — Dot (Kaitlyn Akinpelumi) turns things into chocolate as a weapon, for God’s sake.

The other main message of the film is that sometimes, true love’s kiss doesn’t save the day — at least not in the way you expect it to, since perhaps the truest form of love is friendship. Yes, there is a Prince Charming (Jamie Flatters), but if you expect him to be the one to save the school, you’re underestimating the power of two lifelong friends.

Once again, Director Paul Feig has put together another female-led fun film, albeit one with a younger target audience than Bridesmaids or The Heat. The School for Good and Evil is a feel-good movie, a spellbinding trip into a fairy tale land where Good and Evil are not so apparent as they may seem. And it’s a fun, spectacular ride to boot.