‘The Mysterious Benedict Society’ Goes on a Brainy Adventure With Visual Delight

Disney’s “The Mysterious Benedict Society” has the feel of those children’s stories that are actually sneaky tools to try and develop their brains. Part adventure and part mind teaser, this adaptation of Trenton Lee Stewart’s books never pretends to be for anyone other than its intended audience. Viewers of a higher age range will enjoy its eye candy in the cinematography and set design, but it’s the younger demographic who might find it both entertaining, while providing tips on how to master those annoying tests at school. Along with the lessons it also brings another crucial storytelling element to many stories for kids: They are the ones needed by the adults for a grander purpose. Not only are the heroes in this story sharp, they get to say goodbye to the boring, mundane world for one of adventure.

The setting is a time and place that could be England in the 1960s. Society is gripped by fear and economic chaos, or what is being called “The Emergency.” We meet Reynie Muldoon (Mystic Inscho), an orphan with a keen mind. His teacher Ms. Perumal (Gia Sandhu) realizes his brilliance and takes him over to take a special series of standardized tests. If he passes Reynie will then be admitted into a very special “school,” the Benedict Society. The tests are intricate brain teasers and trivia mazes, but Reynie makes it to the next level and gets to meet his fellow big brains. They include rowdy Kate Wetherall (Emmy DeOliveira), George ‘Sticky’ Washington (Seth Carr) and strong-willed Constance Contraire (Marta Kessler) . After passing another series of trials, the group is introduced to the man in charge of this whole operation, Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale). A chronic narcoleptic, Mr. Benedict has assembled this group of bright young minds for the purpose of combating a secret, nefarious enterprise that might be behind The Emergency.

There is a definite link between classic Disney family entertainment and the tone of classic children’s fiction when it comes to “The Mysterious Benedict Society.” The design of the show’s world is another dip into vintage. Schools, cars and neighborhoods all appear as if from a half-century ago. Other critics have already compared the series’ aesthetic to Wes Anderson, which is a valid comparison. The production design is richly detailed and the cinematography has the crisp look of a fashion magazine meets fantasy paperback. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” is a complete entertainment for the eyes. Yet Stewart’s fiction and the spirit of the show have a kinship with authors like Roald Dahl. While the surroundings are fun, the writing taps into that feeling of being a kid under the eye of those strange, sometimes authoritarian adults. Microcosmic moments from everyone’s school memories are mixed into certain scenes. Reynie offers to help a fellow test-taker, Rhonda (MaameYaa Boafo), by breaking his pencil in half. When he asks during the exam, which is held in a vast Orwellian classroom, if he can sharpen his pencil, Reynie then goes through the torment of those old pencil sharpeners you would need to endlessly crank to get a decent point. Overseeing the tests is a lady with large glasses, who drinks water out of what seems to be a massive pickle jar.

In many ways this is another Disney property about superhero teams, except whatever powers these young heroes have derive from their smarts. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” will help give younger viewers an early crash course in the use of logic and reasoning. The individual trials the team must pass are really just fun brain teasers to get you thinking. They are made to enter a room with black and white tiles, with instructions to “cross the room without stepping on any white or black squares.” Yiel sweats it during one exam that starts flooding your eyes with questions about obscure Eastern European countries breaking apart and going to war. But he soon figures out, as many do when they actually take their time with these scholastic torture sessions that the answers tend to be hidden in the questions. Guiding the team through the more physical tests is Mulligan (Ryan Hurst), a tall, scruffy helper who looks plucked out of a “Harry Potter” spinoff. 

Once Yiel and the others meet Mr. Benedict, the show begins to promise more standard plotting. The world is in trouble and it’s up to the Society to discover who might be behind it all. Their first mission is to infiltrate  the L.I.V.E Institute, run by the appropriately named Mr. Curtain (also played by Tony Hale with mad scientist glee).  Many adults will no doubt yawn at the recycled premise, but this show is not for them, anyway. When Mr. Benedict, in a baroque study cluttered with books, tells the kids their mission, the story is appealing to that sense of wonder in younger viewers. Wouldn’t it be fun to finally be able to skip school and go fight bad guys? Hidden in there is the desire of children to be taken seriously and not be seen as stupid. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” gives its young characters brains and capacity. They still need to learn a lot, of course. One early candidate for the Society even gets a little too cocky before being sent straight home. But like the works of J.K. Rowling, Stewart’s tale lets its audience dream a little. Even more daring, it also touches on current feelings in the world that are very real, such as economic uncertainty and the pandemic’s continuing impact on our sense of global stability. There are days where it feels like everything is falling apart. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” is a yarn that feels very timely, even as it never loses a sense of brainy fun.

The Mysterious Benedict Society” season one begins streaming June 25 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Disney+.