‘Damsel’ Is Not The Clever Fairy Tale You Want It To Be

The Netflix film insists that this story is unique — but its approach is so heavy-handed that it feels patronizing.
Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie.
Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie.
John Wilson/Netflix

There’s a prince and a princess. There’s a wedding. And, of course, there’s a fire-breathing dragon, but “Damsel” is not your average fairy tale, and the movie makes it impossible to forget that fact.

Netflix’s newest original movie opens with a black screen and a voiceover. “There are many stories of chivalry where the heroic knight saves the damsel in distress. This is not one of them,” says the film’s protagonist, Elodie (Millie Bobby Brown).

In “Damsel,” the insistence that what makes this movie unique is that Elodie is a woman who must save herself is so heavy-handed that it feels patronizing. It’s also unsurprising that this flat female-centered screenplay was written by a man, Dan Mazeua, because it lacks the depth of female experience, of what it means to be a princess, stepmother, queen or dragon.

When the screen fills with color, there are pounding hoofbeats in a grassy field, a dragon’s shadow in the sky, and a red-faced king screaming, “Let’s kill the beast!” as he leads a rage-filled charge toward the mountain caves. Inside the lair, it quickly becomes clear they have no chance of survival when the dragon spews fire, and a group of men melt in the waves of flame. The few remaining knights are captured and killed when the beast’s tentacle-like tail whips them into the stone walls. Standing alone and faced with his own demise, the king kneels before the shadow-covered dragon.

The opening scene is gruesome and dark and seemingly simple — a kingdom fighting to protect itself against a vicious dragon — and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which picks up “centuries later … in a faraway land.”

In a cold, barren, stump-filled countryside, Elodie is talking to her younger sister Floria (Brooke Carter) and chopping whatever wood she can find for her people to use as kindling. A gilded carriage appears on the road behind them, and the mysterious, red-robed visitor sets the plot in motion with an offer of marriage to a prince in a faraway kingdom. At her father’s urging and to save her freezing and starving people, Elodie dutifully agrees to the match. She travels to the lush kingdom of Aurea where she fulfills her obligation to marry the prince.

After the wedding, Elodie is tossed into the dragon’s lair as a ritual sacrifice for the kingdom’s ancient debt, the one Aurea has owed since its king first knelt before the beast centuries earlier. The movie hinges upon this subversion, on the idea that a damsel will be in distress and that a prince not only isn’t going to save her, but also is the very reason she’s in danger.

This point is obvious from the opening voiceover, and it is reiterated through an undermining of both traditional and modern symbols. While Elodie seems like a classic damsel with a heart as caring as Cinderella’s and the wanderlust of Ariel and Belle and Rapunzel, her marriage isn’t going to lead to a traditional happy ending where prince and princess escape the harsh realities of life to live happily ever after. Instead, Elodie’s prince carries her over a rose-petal covered threshold, so he can throw her to her death (by dragon).

Ray Winstone as Lord Bayford and Angela Bassett as Lady Bayford in "Damsel."
Ray Winstone as Lord Bayford and Angela Bassett as Lady Bayford in "Damsel."
John Wilson/Netflix

These subversions aren’t subtle, and, when combined with a point of view that is focalized almost entirely through Elodie’s eyes (and captured with a lot of close lens camera shots), it undermines the very complexities that the film wants to create.

This shortfall is most evident in the poor development of the secondary characters. The casting choices encourage viewers to question stereotypes. Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone) is Elodie’s harsh father. The warm and wonderful Angela Bassett is the not-wicked stepmother Lady Bayford. Robin Wright, the same actress who played iconic damsel Princess Buttercup in “The Princess Bride,” is the manipulative and merciless Queen Isabelle. As her son, Prince Henry, played by Nick Robinson, appears as likable as the other love interests he’s played in young adult romcoms such as “Love, Simon” and “Everything, Everything.” Rounding out the cast, Shohreh Aghdashloo gives the dragon’s voice depth and emotion.

However, instead of adding complexity, these characters fall flat under the weight of Elodie’s storyline. They shouldn’t feel one-dimensional because the cast is talented, and the duty that each of these characters struggle to carry should engender sympathy and elicit questions about how they are subverting their own tropes: caring father, vapid stepmother, benevolent queen, savior prince and evil dragon. For example, Prince Henry’s internal struggle between the duty he feels to his people and the guilt he feels for deceiving and harming princesses like Elodie is hinted at through his facial expressions and the few lines of dialogue he’s given, but his character, like the others, could be so much more interesting.

Instead, too much of the movie is spent in the gritty caves with Elodie as she tries to escape and outsmart a shockingly sentient dragon determined to kill her. If you want to watch Millie Bobby Brown in an action-packed film as she runs and climbs through dark caves while making various facial expressions of horror and deconstructing her Swiss-Army-knife-esque wedding dress to create survival tools, then “Damsel” is the movie for you.

However, if you’re expecting a clever fairy tale being reimagined through a feminist lens, I’d look elsewhere.

Women deserve to be more than their tropes, and having a damsel save herself from a dragon doesn’t do enough to reimagine the traditional fairy tale narrative.

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