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The School for Good and Evil Subverts Fairy Tale Tropes

The School for Good and Evil plays with the nuances of humanity; it calls into question the all-or-nothing thinking in Fairy Tales’ black-and-white rules of morality. The author of the children’s book series, Soman Chainani, paints a story around friendship, forgiveness, and fate. Netflix’s adaptation, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, A Simple Favour, Last Christmas), continues these themes and plays well within the confines of a PG-13 rating that also appeals to an adult crowd.

Considering Paul Feig’s portfolio of previous work, this project feels like an odd choice for the director. However, he’s nailed the tone and comedy of the family adventure, especially with the help of seasoned PG-13 screenwriter David Mcgee (Finding Neverland, Mary Poppins Returns).

The cast is spectacular and odd. It’s incredible to me that a direct-to-streamer Netflix adaptation of an age 5-12 novel would gather legendary actors Michelle Yeoh, Laurence Fishburne, Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron and Cate Blanchett alongside High School Musical: The Musical – The Series star Sofia Wylie and Shadow & Bone actor Kit Young. It makes the film so much more enjoyable hearing Cate Blanchett’s voice narrate this story and watching Michelle Yeoh play a “Beautification” teacher in, like, three scenes. Whenever an actor of their calibre came on screen, I smiled and immediately perked up watching them float through this fantastical script about angsty teenagers in Fairy Tale school. It was quite the experience, and I loved it!

The School of Good and Evil wide netflix poster: L-R - Michelle Yeoh, Kerry Washington, Sofia Wylie, Sophia Anne Caruso, Charlize Theron, Laurence Fishburne. The school is in the background, and pink flowers are in the foreground.
Credit: Netflix

The School for Good and Evil is two and a half hours long. It took up much more of my afternoon than I had thought, but I made myself a pumpkin spice latte, pulled a bunch of Halloween candy from the box in the kitchen and got myself situated on the couch for this wild ride.

The film is about two friends, Agatha (Sofia Wylie) and Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso), who’ve been as thick as thieves since childhood. While Agatha is a pessimistic realist, Sophie is a fairy-tale-loving optimistic romantic. Agatha wants nothing more than to live her life and help her mother, she’s grown up with the town constantly calling her a witch, and it’s shaped her perception of people. Sophie has a dream to become more than her town has to offer; she wants to be a princess and be fawn over by people. When Sophie is told about The School for Good and Evil by the local bookshop owner, she writes a letter begging to be taken away.

Sophia Anne Caruso and Sofia Wylie walk through the town their from at the beginning of the film. They're both smiling and a little grimy.
Credit: Gilles Mingasson/Netflix

Sophie’s wish is granted, but Agatha desperately doesn’t want her to go, so she holds on to Sophie as tight as she can and ends up being taken to school as well. Sophie wanted to become a princess at the School for Good, but she’s dropped at the School for Evil, and Agatha is dropped at the School for Good. For most of the film, Sophie believes that she was dropped at the wrong school; however, time proves that she belongs at the School for Evil and that Agatha is pure goodness through and through. Their friendship bond bends the divides between Good and Evil and changes the world of Fairy Tales, opening doors for a better balance between the two historically opposing sides.

 

Along with explaining the nuances of morality, the film also comments on stereotypical beauty standards. Agatha is constantly told by the other girls at the School for Good that she does not belong there because of how she looks, and vice versa for Sophie at the School for Evil. In reality, the girls at the “good” school are bullying Agatha just as severely as the girls at the “evil” school. This juxtaposition calls into question the moralising of physical attributes in literature and film, i.e., fair and beautiful = good, warts or big nose = evil.

Kerry Washington as Prof. Clarissa Dovey, the Dean of the School for Good andCharlize Theron as Lady Leonora Lesso, the Dean of the School for Evil
Credit: Helen Sloan/Netflix

At points, the script felt like they were shouting the underlying themes at the audience. There were plenty of moments when Prof. Clarissa Dovey, the Dean of the School for Good (Kerry Washington), or even Agatha, delivered a soundbite of direct and to-the-point ethics crash course.

Many of the film’s turning points and challenges were trope-y, but the story was never entirely predictable. Each time you thought you knew exactly what would happen, it happened slightly differently or with a twist. The theme never corrupted itself for a happily ever after; it maintained the nuance and balance of good and evil; we didn’t end with the School of Evil miraculously becoming good, but we did see Good embrace Evil and vice versa.

Sofia Wylie as Agatha close up in a blue gown
Credit: Netflix

One of my favourite trope twists was True Loves Kiss. Not only was the concept manipulated by Rafal (Kit Young) for evil, but it was also shown as an act of platonic love between Agatha and Sophie. I loved this. I thought it was a unique way to subvert expectations and establish a deeper understanding of the themes within the story. Sophie’s sacrifice to Agatha and Agatha’s love for Sophie exemplifies everything the story is trying to achieve; it is the strength of friendship, it is the bond between girls, it is forgiveness, it is true unconditional love.

I also grinned every time Sophie handled Tedros’s (Jamie Flatters) sword, Excalibur. The sword has a lot of symbolism in fantasy as King Author’s blade, so seeing a girl in a dress wield it and watching Sophie finish Rafal herself instead of being saved by the prince, Tedros, was a cherry on top to this trope-destroying Fairy Tale story.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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