BComing in 2017, the idea of a straight-to-stream blockbuster sounded slightly ridiculous. When netflix published Bright – the ruthlessly hackneyed $100 million “orc cop” movie starring Will Smith – it felt like the mad madness of a company drunk on its own success. Five years, a pandemic and three prime ministers later, the prospect of Netflix releasing a movie on this scale feels like just another Friday.
The latest expensive release to grace the streamer’s catalog is The School of Good and Evil. Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids; 2016 ghost hunters), the film follows two teenage girls who enroll in a school of magic divided into two opposing factions (good and not so good). The whole thing is kind of a hodgepodge of different fantasy tropes and fairy tales – Harry Potter Passing by Shrek. Public domain intellectual property is greedily plundered for the characters: the school groups characters like the offspring of King Arthur with the son of Prince Charming and the daughter of the Sheriff of Nottingham. It also borrows from Netflix’s own proven formulas. The royal ballgown scenes seem pulled straight from the aesthetic of Bridgertonwhile there are shades of fantastic fares such as The sand man in its supernatural fantasy sequences.
The only problem? It’s painful to watch. clocking in at nearly half past two, The School of Good and Evil is a turgid, often nonsensical drag that critics were quick to tear up. If the overall scores are to be believed, audiences have been considerably kinder to him, but even a cursory glance at social media will show that the response from Netflix loyalists has been decidedly mixed. For Netflix, this kind of lukewarm reception has become the norm.
That’s not to say that Netflix is incapable of producing great original content. In fact, it has produced or distributed a number of the best films of the past decade, from Marriage story at Uncut Gems. But when it comes to big budget crowd pleasers, it’s been miss after miss. Among nine-figure budget films, The Irishman ($160 million) is the only masterpiece – and Martin Scorsese’s languid three-and-a-half-hour gangster flick is nobody’s idea of a popcorn movie. Look through the rest of Netflix’s tentpole movies and these are movies like red notice, The gray man, Triple Frontier and 6 Underground: lackluster thrillers without any cultural longevity.
At this point, it’s a widely recognized fact that Netflix releases are usually only instant hits, such is the company’s relentless emphasis on weekly new releases. But when you spend huge amounts of money on something that gets buried and ignored within days, you have to wonder about the viability of the whole business.
Now, you can argue that Netflix’s tasteless blockbusters are simply a sign of a wider shortage of decent, big-budget movies in the industry at large. There’s some truth to that, of course – many of the year’s most successful full-length movies are just as weak as what Netflix is offering, or even worse (looking at you, Jurassic World Dominion). But this year only saw The Batman and Top Gun: Maverick hitting the multiplexes – two well-received charismatic blockbusters that Netflix would surely kill for. Shit, even Sam Raimi’s strange doctor sequel had flashes of cinematic bravery.
For some reason, Netflix’s attempts to bottle this kind of mass-market pizzazz always end in disappointment, and The School of Good and Evil is certainly no exception. A common refrain among critics seems to have been that the movie might have worked better as a TV series. Can you imagine anyone ever saying that about Jaws? Or Avatar? Or celestial fall? It would be sacrilege.
For some reason, Netflix is still struggling to make the leap into the big leagues. But for now, at least, he seems determined to try.