The School For Good And Evil Review: Paul Feig Works His Magic For A Frothy But Flawed Family Film

Family movies tend to get a bad rap — they're either too silly or too juvenile or too shallow for general audiences, or so adults like to proclaim. But there's a lot more joy to be had in a family film apart from its ability to not annoy parents after their kids' fourth or fifth rewatch. Family movies can challenge their audiences as much as they can keep them entertained while mom is making dinner. Or, at the very least, they can keep them entertained. Paul Feig's charmingly silly fantasy film "The School for Good and Evil" falls in the latter camp.

That's not to say "The School for Good and Evil" is without merits. Quite the contrary — it's a frothy and fun time, helmed by a director who knows — and has respect for — the material. There's a difference between a director who reluctantly makes a family film out of some halfhearted obligation to their own kids, and a director like Feig who clearly doesn't condescend on or patronize the original story. After all, he's loaded up the film with a surprisingly impressive A-list cast (Charlize Theron! Kerry Washington! Laurence Fishburne! Michelle Yeoh! Cate Blanchett's voice?!) and set things up for a sequel which, honestly, wouldn't be the worst possibility.

Back to school

Based on the 2013 children's book written by Soman Chainani, "The School for Good and Evil" is your classic misbehaving fairy tale. The beautiful, graceful girl who seems destined to become a fairy tale princess is actually wicked at heart, while the "ugly," (though in this case, ugly means having particularly unruly hair) boorish girl gets the chance to fall in love with a dashing prince. It's an easy formula, but it's one that Feig earnestly approaches, even if he does dial down the book's telltale wit and sand down a few edges (see: the aforementioned "ugliness").

Sofia Wylie (bringing over her "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" leading lady charms) and Sophia Anne Caruso (sharp and funny) are fantastic as the teen leads, town black sheep Agatha and mistreated heroine Sophie, respectively. The two are unlikely best friends brought together by tragedy — Agatha was the only one to comfort Sophie after the death of her beloved mother, while Sophie is the only one to stand up for Agatha against the cruel townspeople who believe Agatha to be a witch.

It's them against the world — until Sophie gets sick of being bullied by her mean stepmother (Rachel Bloom) and having her potential wasted. After the two of them learn about the mythical School for Good and Evil from the kind bookshop owner (Patti LuPone), Sophie writes a letter to them begging to be admitted. When she hears no response back, she decides to run away, but is stopped by Agatha and a sinister creature lurking in the bushes, which kidnaps both of them and drops them off at the school — but Sophie is dropped in the School for Evil, while Agatha is dropped at the School for Good. Believing there to be a mistake, the two plead their cases to the School Master (Laurence Fishburne), who urges Sophie to find true love's kiss, which would prove that she is truly Good. But as the two plan to get Sophie her kiss, Agatha realizes that something is amiss at this school and that the two of them may be caught up in a devious and evil scheme.

Back to witches and wizards and magical beasts

Most viewers will probably make an immediate comparison between "The School of Good and Evil" and another beloved YA fantasy franchise set at a magical school: Harry Potter. But in reality, the closest comparison is the cheesy, surprisingly delightful Mike Mitchell movie "Sky High." Like "Sky High," "The School of Good and Evil" is more subversive satire than straightforward fantasy, and while Feig's film isn't quite that clever or original, it is occasionally quite funny.

"The School for Good and Evil" embraces the silliness inherent in the genre, but still isn't afraid to lean into the sentimentality. The adult leads of the film happily take charge on the camp factor (Theron and Washington are especially having a blast as the heads of the School for Evil and School for good, respectively) but it's the teen leads that really shine. Wylie is likable and sweet, even in the midst of her fourth eye-roll, while Caruso has clearly been taking lessons in how to chew scenery from Theron. The supporting teen costars are pretty thinly sketched out otherwise — romantic interest Jamie Flatters is riding pretty heavily on the fact that he looks like Noah Centineo — but do their part in filling the school with colorful characters. And while a few of the high-powered stars are wasted (Michelle Yeoh, you deserve more), the cast is all game.

But the most conspicuous problem with "The School of Good and Evil" is its length. At two and a half hours, it's just too long for such a simple story and such a wasted cast. Wylie and Caruso are at least talented enough to carry the bulk of the movie, but the twists and turns — likely the film's fealty to adapting the book plot — could have easily been condensed. "The School for Good and Evil" is a fun family film, but when you pass the two-hour mark, that fun starts to wear thin. Next time, save the extra padding for the sequel.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10