Back in 2017, the idea of a blockbuster going straight to streaming seemed a little ridiculous. When Netflix came out Bright — the brutally panned $100 million “orc cop” movie starring Will Smith — felt like the crazy folly of a company drunk on its own success. Five years, one pandemic and three premiers later, the prospect of Netflix releasing a movie on that scale sounds like just another Friday.
The latest expensive release to grace the streamer’s catalog is The school for good and evil. Directed by Paul Feig (bridesmaids; 2016’s Ghostbusters), the film follows two teenage girls who are enrolled in a magical school that is split into two conflicting factions (good and less good). The whole is a kind of mixture of different fantasy and fairytale-like figures of speech – Harry Potter by way of Shrek. Public domain IP is eagerly looted for characters: The school throws in characters like King Arthur’s progeny with Prince Charming’s son and Sheriff of Nottingham’s daughter. It also borrows from Netflix’s own tried and true formulas. Scenes of royal ball gowns appear straight from the aesthetics of Bridgertonwhile there are shades of fantasy such as: the sandman in its fanciful supernatural sequences.
The only problem? It’s painful to watch. For nearly two and a half hours, The school for good and evil is a bloated, often nonsensical rut, one that critics have quickly torn apart. The public has been considerably kinder to it, if we are to believe the aggregate scores, but even a cursory glance at social media will show that reactions among Netflix believers have been mixed. For Netflix, this kind of lukewarm reception has become the norm.
That’s not to say Netflix isn’t capable of producing great original content. In fact, it has produced or distributed some of the best films of the past decade, from wedding story until Uncut Gemstones. But when it comes to big, high-budget crowd pleasers, it’s been dud after dud. Among the films in the nine-figure budget range, the Irishman ($160 million) stands alone as its one and only masterpiece — and Martin Scorsese’s languid three-and-a-half-hour gangster film is almost nobody’s idea of a popcorn movie. Look through the rest of Netflix’s tentpole movies and it’s movies like Red notification, the gray man, Triple limit and 6 Underground: boring thrillers with absolutely no cultural longevity.
At this point, it’s a widely recognized fact that Netflix releases generally have nothing but flash-in-the-pan success, such as the company’s relentless focus on new weekly releases. But if you’re spending a huge amount of money on something that will be buried and ignored in a matter of days, you have to wonder if the entire venture is viable.
Now you could argue that Netflix’s bland blockbusters are simply indicative of a greater lack of decent big-budget movies in the industry as a whole. There is, of course, some truth to this: many of the year’s most successful all-around films are just as weak as what Netflix is putting out, if not worse (looking at you, Jurassic World Dominion). But this year only has seen the batter and Top Gun: Maverick hit the multiplexes – two well-received, charismatic blockbusters that Netflix would surely kill for. Hell, even Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange sequel had flashes of cinematic bravado.
For whatever reason, Netflix’s attempts to bottle this kind of mass-market pizza always end in disappointment, and The school for good and evil is certainly no exception. A common refrain among reviewers seems to have been that the film might have worked better as a TV series. Can you imagine anyone ever saying that about it? jaws? Or Avatar? Or skyfall? It would be sacrilege.
For whatever reason, Netflix is still struggling to make the leap into the big leagues. But for now, at least it seems determined to try.