‘Damsel’: The Only Fire in This Dragon Fantasy Is Millie Bobby Brown 

The premise of Netflix’s “Damsel” seems to be that fantasies have too many damsels in distress, so we need more strong ones taking names. On that note, it is not entirely wrong. Alas, its promising starting point gets quickly burned to a crisp by turning into a throwaway dragon chase. The streamer giant, like its competitors, has fallen into the habit of mass producing throwaway content. It tries to shine by showing off some top tier names Netflix can certainly afford to pay, despite this being another movie that might quickly disappear in its vast catalog. There is already a built-in audience from “Stranger Things” fans, who want to see Millie Bobby Brown in action. She is definitely the best part of the movie.

Brown is Elodie, the daughter of Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), who has fallen on hard times. He and Elodie’s stepmother, Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett) have found possible good fortune for their family, the kind common in fantasy kingdoms from long ago. A rich kingdom belonging to Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright) and King Roderick (Milo Twomey) need a proper bride for their son, Prince Henry (Nick Robinson). Elodie is a perfect choice and so she and her parents, as well as young sister Floria (Brooke Carter), make the trip to seal the deal. Once they arrive at the glistening kingdom, all seems great. Lady Bayford instantly senses trouble from Queen Isabelle but the wedding proceeds. Well, it doesn’t turn out so well when Elodie discovers she’s meant to be the sacrificial lamb thrown over a bridge and into the dark cave of a dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo). 

Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and writer Dan Mazeau are two guys trying to make a feminist fantasy that is actually just another testosterone daydream. They don’t play around much with the genre or settings, to the point that the writing feels like a first draft written by a high schooler. Not a single word anyone says can be believed, even in a young adult fantasy sense. Even the actors feel like the dialogue is forcing them to put on fake royal accents. You know it’s not working when Angela Bassett, Robin Wright and Ray Winstone can’t pull it off. No effort is put into building an actual world, either. Neither kingdom involved seems to have any citizens beyond the main characters inhabiting a CGI castle. Don’t these monarchs have peasants to lord over? For Queen Isabelle, the commoners are Elodie’s family, since they’re broke and Lady Bayford’s father was a rope maker. 

The real movie kicks in when Elodie is tossed into an abyss, any romantic notions dashed, and the dragon chases her around a cave that looks completely made out of plastic. The one visually appealing moment involves a pathway to the surface strewn with crystals. The rest looks like the bad version of a theme park ride, or at least the section where you wait in line. The dragon doesn’t say much beyond “I will get you” (what is the great Iranian actor Shohreh Aghdashloo doing here?) while spewing lots of digital fire around the corners where Elodie desperately hides. Later, we find out the beast has good reason to be angry since a brutish king killed three of her babies years ago. This is why she demands a sacrifice. Fine, but they could have done more with the story. As in many male fantasies, Elodie eventually becomes a sweaty survivor with lots of torn clothing, despite her lipstick never withering. 

Probably because this is one of Netflix’s smaller budgeted offerings, the plot tends to get stuck on a wheel where Elodie continuously finds herself falling back into the cave. The screenplay finds a way to drag her back in during the third act after she finally manages to find a horse to ride back to her family. All this just to have the dragon fly around some more, mostly in shadowy shots before we finally get a good look, kill a few poor souls who went in after Elodie and eventually have a final showdown. Ironically, Elodie is a damsel in lots of distress, but the one merit here is that indeed, she does not need a prince to come rescue her. In the process Brown proves she has the chops for action, all she needs rescuing from is this movie so she can do a better one.

Damsel” begins streaming March 8 on Netflix.