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Damsel review: Netflix’s latest fantasy adventure is a trip worth taking

Millie Bobby Brown holds a small lantern in Damsel.
“Netflix's Damsel is an entertaining and endearing, if forgettable, fantasy adventure.”
Pros
  • Millie Bobby Brown's fully committed star turn
  • A riveting, nail-bitingly tense second act
  • Shohreh Aghdashloo's spell-binding vocal performance
Cons
  • A predictable plot
  • A first act that stretches on a little too long
  • A number of forgettable supporting characters and performances

Once upon a time, Netflix seemed actively interested in finding and elevating its own movie stars, but the streaming service’s efforts to do so mostly proved to be in vain. The actors that its original shows and movies lifted up six and seven years ago have since either moved away from the platform or fallen back into obscurity. The only performer who hasn’t is Millie Bobby Brown, who achieved breakout success when Stranger Things premiered back in 2016 and has spent most of the intervening years developing star vehicles for herself at Netflix.

Brown’s ongoing partnership with the streaming service has so far produced two entertaining, low-stakes YA mysteries in Enola Holmes and Enola Holmes 2, and now the feminist fantasy adventure Damsel. The new film looks better than a lot of the high-budget Netflix originals that are made these days, and, like Brown’s first two Enola Holmes efforts, it doesn’t seem designed to leave you particularly disappointed or elated. It’s a fine film that makes it clear, for better and worse, just how well Brown understands the kind of lightweight fare that Netflix is becoming increasingly associated with.

Millie Bobby Brown and Nick Robinson hold hands in Damsel.
John Wilson / Netflix

The worst thing that can be said about Damsel is that it takes itself too seriously. The film’s script, penned by Dan Mazeau, sets out to subvert the damsel-in-distress cliché that originated in the very fantasy romances that its first act imitates surprisingly well. Damsel makes its intentions to do so immediately clear with an opening piece of narration in which Brown promises, “There are many stories of chivalry where the heroic knight saves the damsel in distress … This is not one of them.” It’s the kind of cheesy line that you could reasonably expect to be followed by a punchline, but Damsel isn’t interested in poking as much fun at itself as it should.

That isn’t the only cringe-worthy bit of dialogue that Brown is forced to put her whole back into, but the actress’ sheer commitment to her role makes it easy to look past some of her most unfortunate lines. The Stranger Things star leads the film as Elodie, a princess from a harsh medieval land whose home is seemingly rescued from mass starvation and poverty when her father, Lord Bayford (a shockingly sincere Ray Winstone), receives a proposal to marry her to Henry (Nick Robinson), a prince from a rich island kingdom. For much of its first half-hour, Damsel follows Elodie as a seemingly idyllic future is prepared for her by her father, Henry, and the latter’s icy mother, Queen Isabelle (a one-note Robin Wright).

However, things turn out not to be what they seem when Elodie is sacrificed and thrown into a pit shortly after her wedding as part of a dark, generations-spanning deal between Henry’s family and the hungry dragon that has lived on their island longer than them. Alone and tormented by her fire-breathing hunter (voiced chillingly by Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo), Elodie finds herself fighting for her very survival in a labyrinthine mountain that has long served not only as its dragon’s home but also as a graveyard for all the princesses who have been previously sacrificed. For his part, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo makes Damsel‘s central setting seem simultaneously cramped and cavernous, and the film’s clearly artificial, handmade interior sets only lend it even more of a storybook-esque charm.

Millie Bobby Brown looks out of a mountain cave in Damsel.
John Wilson / Netflix

Beyond the core subversion of its prince-and-princess plot, Damsel never delivers any truly shocking narrative twists. The complete arc of its story will be immediately clear to dedicated fantasy fans and casual viewers alike, but that doesn’t stop the film from making the most out of many of its biggest moments. The movie dedicates its entire second and third acts to Elodie’s prolonged battle with both her mountain prison and the relentless dragon that hunts her. Her fight is punctuated by discoveries, near-death encounters, and false climaxes that are so effectively staged and paced that they’ll keep you on the edge of your seat for nearly 60 minutes straight.

It’s a credit to Brown just how quickly Damsel convinces you of Elodie’s nightmarish, horror movie-esque situation. The young actress has never been one to work her way through a scene half-heartedly, but Damsel ranks firmly as her most physically taxing project to date. Despite that fact, Brown throws herself fully into every set piece she’s asked to perform, whether it be something as simple as climbing up a steep rock slide or swinging a sword at a dragon that is 10 times her size. The actress makes you feel every scrape and bruise that Elodie endures over the course of her sweaty, frequently terrifying journey.

Damsel‘s self-serious tone and full-throated vocalizations of its already clear feminist themes may make fantasy fans long for a more lighthearted, joyous romp like last year’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, but the Netflix film won’t make them want to switch to a different streaming service, either. It’s an earnestly made adventure that, while forgettable, doesn’t take the time and attention of its viewers for granted. There’s a real effort on display in nearly every one of its scenes, and the complete absence of laziness throughout it makes it better than most of the blockbusters Netflix has produced in recent years.

Whether Brown will ever rise above the low heights offered by the streaming service that made her a star remains to be seen, but Damsel proves that she knows how to play the Netflix game better than almost anyone. The film won’t light up anyone’s best-of-the-year list, but its spin on a traditional fairytale is both fresh and entertaining enough to keep you constantly engaged and ready to see what awaits on its next page.

Damsel is streaming now on Netflix.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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