Review: Millie Bobby Brown Stars in Netflix’s Damsel, a Fable that Aims for a New Take on the Fairy Tale

When is a fairy tale not a fairy tale? Well, according to the makers of Damsel, this story of a dutiful young woman who agrees to marry a handsome prince is not your typical fairy tale, and to a degree this is true. Still, there are kings and queens and even a dragon, so it sure looks like a fairy tale, as directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later, Intruders), working from a screenplay by Dan Mazeau. The twist to Damsel begins right after said wedding, and turns into more of a female-driven action movie/survivor’s story, rather than any kind of happily-ever-after tale.

Elodie (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown) lives humbly with her parents, Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone) and his new wife, Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett), who isn’t your typical stepmother. In fact, Lady Bayford cares a great deal for her stepdaughters Elodie and Floria (Brooke Carter). She is the first to become suspicious when arrangements are made with a nearby royal family—Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright, deliberately playing against type from her Princess Bride role), King Roderick (Milo Twomey), and Prince Henry (Nick Robinson). The Prince seems to have it all: looks, charm, and a devotion to family. But soon after the nuptials, Elodie is taken to a remote location to perform a ritual that will supposedly bind her to her new family’s ancestors.

It turns out, these ancestors had an agreement with a certain fire-breathing dragon (voiced by the terrific Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo; yes, the dragon speaks, but very menacingly), whereby they must throw someone from their bloodline once in a generation into a cave, where the dragon lives, to be sacrificed, or some such nonsense. But wait, you may say, Elodie isn’t of their bloodline. Naturally, the royals have a way around this, and they are able to trick the dragon into taking these outsiders rather than actual blood-related relatives. In fact, they have to sacrifice three such maidens every few years, all lured by the promise of marrying the prince. Once in the cave, Elodie doesn’t die easily. Instead, she fights to both live and to discover exactly why this is all happening to her, and before long, she learns the true reason the royal family must pay this severe ancient debt, something that sees her starting to side with the dragon.

Admittedly, I like the idea of the damsel fighting back rather than simply accepting her fate. Elodie is absolutely excited about the idea of marrying a prince, so there’s no sorrowful arranged marriage issues here. The set up of the film is rather ingenious, but once Elodie gets into the cave, things become a dimly lit, effects-heavy action set piece that certainly gives Brown a chance to once again prove she’s an intelligent action star (as she did in the Enola Holmes movies). I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that Elodie escapes from the caves (that is not how the story ends, and she ends up going back in for reasons I won’t give away), and the image of a grimy, pissed-off young woman intent on vengeance walking into a palace in the middle of yet another wedding to the prince is pretty spectacular.

Still, the cat-and-mouse game that plays out between her and the dragon is fairly pedestrian, like a game of Dungeons & Dragons for preschoolers. Brown and Wright play the only two characters with any kind of spark in their eyes, and the way Prince Henry attempts to make a redemptive turn near the end of the film is borderline insulting and laughable. Damsel is a film that gets by on its personality because what it has to offers visually or in terms of storytelling is fairly lacking after a strong opening. Having never seen Stranger Things, my exposure to Brown’s acting has all been in film appearances, and I’ve liked her in most everything I’ve seen, so this was a rare letdown by my count.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.