Damsel (2024)

by - March 8th, 2024 - Movie Reviews


It’s Princess Versus Dragon in the Enjoyable Fantasy Adventure Damsel

Princess Elodie (Millie Bobby Brown) is the eldest daughter of the proud Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone). Their small kingdom is suffering through its second devastating winter in a row. With their coffers empty and the people suffering, it is clear something needs to be done right away.

Damsel (2024) | PHOTO: Netflix

That “something” is the arranged marriage of Elodie to Prince Henry (Nick Robinson), the only son of the rich and powerful Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright). For reasons she will only discuss with Lord Bayford face-to-face, the queen believes an alliance between their two kingdoms would benefit them both. While their children get to know one another, the two rulers will complete their backroom deal, and the resulting wedding of their two beloved children will be one for the history books.

Directed by 28 Weeks Later and Intacto filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the opening section depicting this preliminary series of events is the weakest part of the new fantasy adventure Damsel. It does the job of setting the stage, but other than cementing who Elodie is as a character and what she is willing to selflessly sacrifice for her people (and to a lesser extent establishing the bond she has with younger sister Floria, played by vibrant youngster Brooke Carter), these scenes are flat, emotionally dispiriting, and anemically paced.

Thankfully, things change for the better when Henry, under the icy supervision of his mother, throws Elodie off of a narrow bridge and into a deep, dark cave located in the center of a gigantic mountain. Once there, the princess discovers that she has been sacrificed to an actual honest-to-goodness fire-breathing dragon with a taste for royal blood.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of hide-evade-escape, the dragon preferring to toy with its prey for as long as possible. It wants Elodie to suffer, the beast needing her to believe she can escape before eventually pouncing to make the kill. It is a long-held grudge against the humans who populate Queen Isabelle’s domain, and these generational sacrifices are what stop the creature from destroying the entire kingdom.

There isn’t much mystery as to what happened to ignite the dragon’s fury. I had that figured out long before Elodie put the pieces together and gained insight as to why she suddenly found herself in this life-or-death predicament. But the screenplay written by Dan Mazeau (Fast X) is confidently assembled, and I liked its narrative efficiency. Things move from A to B to C nicely and, once again, once the film becomes Elodie versus Dragon, it becomes quite enjoyable.

The effects are a mixed bag. It’s obvious the majority of the sets were either digitally augmented or created entirely on a computer, and there are key moments where it looks as if Brown has been inserted inside a video game à la TRON. But the dragon is spectacular. While no Vermithrax Pejorative (or even Smaug the Magnificent), the beast is incredibly well realized. Created by Patrick Tatopoulos (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) — who also doubles as the film’s production designer — this is a beautifully realized monster, and the creature was certainly worthy of my awe.

It helps considerably that the beast is voiced by Academy Award-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo. This is a sublime vocal performance. I loved how she would draw out the pronunciation of Elodie’s name, each syllable dripping from her snarling mouth with a palpably anguished disdain. There is a painful fury to the dragon’s temperament that’s bone-crushing in its mournful indignation, and although her lines are relatively few, Aghdashloo’s presence is so transformative that it’s impossible to imagine I’d have liked the picture nearly as much without her.

Damsel (2024) | PHOTO: Netflix

Fresnadillo does a fine job dialing up the intensity, and he does a better one of laying out the geography of the dragon’s lair so it never becomes a question as to how big it is or where any of the combatants are at any given moment. Wright also seems to be having a grand time reveling in Queen Isabelle’s jovially unapologetic villainy, and I only wish her character had a little more to do. Winstone is somewhat wasted, however, as is the great Angela Bassett as his second wife the Lady Bayford, and other than picking up what had to have been decent paychecks, I’m not sure what either of them are doing here.

While I prefer her in the two Netflix Enola Holmes mysteries, Brown continues to mature into a solidly engaging actress. As for the fantasy itself, I’ve admittedly watched Damsel twice, so it’s obvious that, flaws and all, the film put a big enough smile on my face that I had no problem sitting down for an almost immediate second look. I had fun, and I think the majority of viewers who take a chance on this one likely will as well.

Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)

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