‘Damsel’: Millie Bobby Brown Stranded In A CGI Uncanny Valley

Millie Bobby Brown in Damsel. John Wilson / Netflix

One of the reasons audiences—and awards voters—have gravitated to movies like Barbie and Poor Things is because the fantastical worlds created onscreen have a real, tactile quality. The sets were built and existed in three-dimensions on the soundstages, with tangible depths that translates into the storytelling. These worlds could have been made with green screens and CGI, but it would have detracted from the overall experience. Someone should tell that to the filmmaking team behind Damsel, a movie that is visually flat despite its fantasy setting. 

DAMSEL ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Written by: Dan Mazeau
Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Ray Winstone, Nick Robinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Bassett, Robin Wright
Running time: 107 mins.

The film, written by Dan Mazeau and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, is well-intentioned in its thematic arc, but its execution falters. Millie Bobby Brown stars as Elodie, a hard-working young woman living in a distant kingdom where fuel and food are in short supply. She and her younger sister Floria (Brooke Carter) try their best to stay in good spirits, but things are so dire that Elodie’s father (Ray Winstone) and stepmother (Angela Bassett) agree to sell her off to marry a prince. Once they arrive at the castle, which looks so computer generated it’s disconcerting, everyone is so enamored with the gleaming wealth they don’t notice there’s a nefarious plan afoot. It’s only after Elodie’s wedding to Prince Henry (Nick Robinson) that it becomes clear she’s in serious danger. 

The kingdom owes a long-held debt to a fiery dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo), which it pays by sacrificing newly-minted princesses to the beast. It involves a cult-like ceremony helmed by the emotionless queen (Robin Wright) and apparently dozens of ladies have been tossed into the cavernous lair over the decades, as Elodie discovers when she’s hurled into the depths. In the caves, created with more distracting CGI, she is forced to survive the elements and the threat of a hungry, vengeful dragon. Think 127 Hours meets Game of Thrones meets a video game with bad graphics you played in 1998. 

Millie Bobby Brown, Nick Robinson, Robin Wright, and Milo Twomey in Damsel. Courtesy of Netflix

Brown, an earnest, capable actor, does her best. She’s a compelling protagonist and she throws herself into each scene with impressive ferocity, taking on stunt after stunt as Elodie navigates the precarious caves, where the previous princesses have left clues on how to escape. But the caves are so clearly not real. You can almost see where the skeletal set build began and green screen continues in many of the scenes. It detracts from the story, which contains the seed of a good idea. After so many princess stories where the woman gets rescued it’s great to see one that undercuts the norm. Elodie is scrappy, strong and confident, and Hollywood should never hesitate to put women like that onscreen. But the script borrows too much from existing stories, including The Hunger Games and Frozen, both of which are about a girl acting to protect her sister. 

Despite its disjointed pacing and not-so-original plot, Damsel is moderately entertaining, thanks mostly to Brown. There’s a sweet sub-plot between Elodie and her stepmother, although the Oscar-nominated Bassett isn’t given enough to do. Same with Winstone, who also stars in the far-better Netflix series The Gentlemen, out this week. There are good elements to the film, including the costume design and Lykke Li’s cover of “Ring of Fire” that plays over the credits, but the puzzle pieces don’t fit together to make a seamless image. Younger viewers will likely enjoy it, especially ones who don’t realize that practical sets and effects would have improved things dramatically. There’s a feminist message in there that’s worthwhile. But too much CGI invokes the uncanny valley. It doesn’t feel real enough to feel true, and it’s unsettling, even in a fantastical world like this one. If this is the future of moviemaking Hollywood needs a reckoning with itself. But in the meantime, give Brown something better once she wraps Stranger Things.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.


‘Damsel’ Review: Millie Bobby Brown Stranded In A CGI Uncanny Valley

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