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Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Damsel” wants to make sure we get the point: The film opens with voiceover narration to clarify “this is not” a story of chivalry and heroic knights. Millie Bobby Brown as said damsel saves herself with ingenuity and rage — a fine concept, but probably a touch more revelatory when the production was announced back in 2020.

In fairy-tale fashion, “Damsel” presents a centuries-old story about a group of brave soldiers, a struggling kingdom, and the evil dragon that tries to off them all. (Maybe don’t try to settle an island predominantly populated by fire-breathing beasts?) What follows is misdirection, flashbacks, visions, and wooden dialogue. At least the action is good, and Brown is game as ever.

Elodie (Brown) is the plucky daughter of Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), whose paltry kingdom is dying. When we meet her, she’s hacking down a tree in a barren land while admonishing her little sister Floria (Brooke Carter) for not working hard when their people are freezing and starving. Elodie is a compassionate leader and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. In short, not the kind of person you want to double-cross and throw into a dragon pit.

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Still, Elodie doesn’t quite get it when an evil nun-type (wearing a red headpiece that could only be described as “nefarious”) arrives at her dad’s dismal castle and proposes they skip town: The nun’s kingdom has gold and a handsome prince. Elodie balks. (“That’s no reason to marry!”) Hello? Remember your freezing and starving people? Her seemingly romantic stance on marriage is one of many details that Dan Mazeau’s script addresses once and then disregards.

Damsel. (L-R) Brooke Carter as Floria and Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2024
‘Damsel’John Wilson/Netflix

Soon, the family sets sail for the kingdom of Aurea (Elodie cracks that she’s “never even heard of” the place, an inadvertently very funny joke that could use many more). Aurea is lush, gorgeous, and bedecked with gold and dragon paraphernalia. And there’s this weird, craggy peak just outside the city limits — one that, Elodie notes, hosts a fire-centric event on her first night in Aurea.

Even after a meeting between her father and the steely Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright) that leaves struggling Lord Bayford very upset indeed, Elodie is betrothed to the handsome, if distant Prince Henry (Nick Robinson). Minutes after the wedding, the pair are swept up the side of that weird, craggy peak where a batch of Henry’s faithful are kitted out in their best “Eyes Wide Shut” cosplay. They’re frothing for an “ancestral ceremony” hosted by Queen Isabelle in the world’s creepiest event venue.

Cue: Elodie in the dragon pit. The dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo) is mysterious, scary, twisted, and has killed a lot of young princesses. As Elodie makes her way through the cave, she learns more about the women who came before her, interacts with some very cute magic slugs, and attempts her own take on Batman’s cave-climb from “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Damsel. (L-R) Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie, Nick Robinson as Prince Henry, Robin Wright as Queen Isabelle and Milo Twomey as King Roderick in Damsel. Cr. Netflix ©2023
‘Damsel’Courtesy of Netflix

Mazeau’s script offers a few compelling twists. There’s the obvious “she’s a damsel, but she’s not in distress,” Angela Bassett as her stepmother (she’s not evil!, and a few details about Elodie’s interests (animals and mazes, mostly). The thrust of the story remains that women can be dragonslayers, in any “Game of Thrones” knockoff they wish, in any generally medieval time period they find themselves in. That remains valuable, if familiar, and occasionally entertaining.

“28 Weeks Later” and “Intruders” director Fresnadillo brings impressive world-building and a couple of effective jump scares, despite the budgetary limitations that come with a streaming-only film. Also potent in smaller doses is the dragon (although it rankles that we never learn her name).

So much seems left unsaid in “Damsel.” With a tone that waffles from giddy to bleak, it’s unclear what we’re meant to take from the dragon’s story, or from Elodie and Floria’s dead mother, or the dead princess who’s revived to assist Elodie. It’s rated PG-13 for “sequences of strong creature violence, action, and bloody images,” not to mention multiple scenes of emotional devastation likely to disturb the 10-and-under set.

Fresnadillo plans to remain in the fantastic world of medieval royalty with an upcoming live-action take on “The Sword in the Stone” for Disney+ and ideally, “Damsel” will provide a template for improvement. Of course women can slay dragons, but can we get another pass on the script before they head out to do battle? It will only make that lady — and her very own fairy tale — that much stronger.

Grade: C+

“Damsel” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, March 8.



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