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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'Damsel' review: Millie Bobby Brown takes a dragon & inhales fire

Millie Bobby Brown chilling inside a magical, blue cave

Now, this is why you have to do your research about the person you're marrying; you might meet your prince harming. You have to take your lessons wherever you can get them when it comes to Damsel, a fantasy horror with your daily dose of evil monarchs, dragons, betrayals and plot armour. Millie Bobby Brown stars as Elodie, the titular damsel who leaves her impoverished homeland after her parents, lord Bayford (Ray Winstone) and lady Bayford (Angela Bassett), accept a marriage proposal from prince Henry (Nick Robinson) of the thriving kingdom of Aurea in order to form a valuable alliance. However, this picturesque fairytale isn't quite what it seems as Elodie finds herself in the middle of treachery when she's thrown into the caves that are inhabited by a dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo). Elodie must now attempt to survive its fire and fury, as well as find a way out.

Damsel gets off to a rather conflicting start as parts of the approach that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and writer Dan Mazeau use to set the scene almost seem like a parody of sorts, all the while much of the cast isn't taking the material as seriously as the creatives are. Production design by Patrick Tatopoulos gives the actors a head start as it overcomes the coat of fabrication that modern fantasy tends to have when building a lot of it on stages. Particularly the cave section of the film is quite impressive as the practical sets mesh well with visual effects (supervised by Nicholas Brooks and Nigel Denton-Howes) and stunt work to create suspense and fun. You might even look past David Fleming's music, which often resembles demo versions of scores found in recent fantasy role-playing video games, because the world-building is decent on its own.

But it is only a head start after all since the film doesn't really go anywhere. Brown, accompanied by those video game-esque beats, gets to role-play in the action hero mode for a change in her young career but the dramatic hold isn't enough to elevate Elodie's flat characterisation. It unfortunately ends up being a movie star performance that is designed for screens that are smaller than the viewer, which always feels false because real movie stars aim for the big screen. Bassett, Robinson and Robin Wright (as queen Isabelle) occupy the space as cosplayers more or less whilst Winstone's role seems to be drastically cut down, considering that much of the story's emotional impact relies on lord Bayford's arc and his relationship with Elodie.

What might be even more frustrating is that Fresnadillo and co. fail to notice the moment that Damsel should rise above the dull first act and truly go for broke. Once we get to the cave section that has that finesse in terms of craft, the filmmakers are given the keys to proper fantasy horror mayhem with extreme thrills, daring stunts and delirious visuals, but instead Damsel reaches for the low-hanging fruit. It somewhat wants to be like a great film version of 'Tomb Raider' but moves along like a mobile game; it wants to be exciting but uses safe camera angles for the stunts; it wants the dragon to be a formidable force but mostly uses it for taunting Elodie; it also has everything that the fantasy genre offers at its fingertips but opts for the most predictable and unoriginal designs. Where's the risk-taking? Where's the creativity? You pretty much have video game logic on your side and this is the best that you can do with it? Such a shame.

Everything mentioned above would most likely add up to a fairly forgettable but passable adventure about a young woman learning to take control of her own fate, which is then meant to inspire young people, were it not for the atrocious dialogue. After several excruciating exchanges about monarchs, dreams and whatnots, every single action, reaction and goal is awkwardly explained, as if you're expected to be scrolling on your phone or emptying your dishwasher while listening to the movie. It's not only condescending for audience members of all ages but also for Elodie who is supposed to be a charismatic and courageous protagonist who's trying to beat the odds. This is a visual medium and you're working with fantasy elements. Why would you explain your movie, your characters and their story to death when it's supposed to be about survival?

Smileys: Production design

Frowneys: Dialogue, originality

Dragon the royals through the dirt.


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