Damsel Review: Die Hard With a Dragon, Cranked to Eleven

Damsel is positioned as a star vehicle for Netflix‘s own Millie Bobby Brown, but the real star is its unnamed dragon, shown only in piecemeal until about an hour into the run time. Majestic in design, and dripping with a venomous voice provided by Shohreh Aghdashloo, she’s a worthy onscreen successor to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug and Sean Connery’s Draco.

She also looks to have consumed about 90 percent of the movie’s budget, like so many virgin sacrifices. That is, if the shallow, shot-on-Volume backdrops and janky CG castles of the first half-hour or so are anything to go by.

Danger Things

Brown’s been facing down digital creatures and their monstrous human enablers for her entire career, so she’s more than prepared as a young adult to finally be the action hero that takes them head-on. Her Elodie is introduced splitting logs with an ax, like so many jacked-up ’80s stars (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, the most Arnold movie to ever Arnold, comes to mind). She’s just a poor girl — from a poor family, even — unknowingly trading her life for a monstrosity.

Easy come, indeed…but she’s not going to easily go, after a royal marriage proposal quickly turns sour and drops her into the fire-vomiting lizard’s catacombs. In fact, one could say she’ll…die hard.

Damsel. Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2024

Crawling through tunnels, skinning and charring her knees, and falling from crumbling ledges, Elodie is medieval John McClane with a touch of Link. By virtue of royal nuptials and her hefty lungs, she’s also a very literal scream queen, with all of the attributes of the metaphorical version as well.

If any teenage kids in the house aren’t ready yet for full-on Game of Thrones, Damsel frequently plays like a more PG-13 Daenerys origin story. With its crunchy violent sound effects and judicious use of blood, it’s the type of fantasy film that’ll make young teens think they’re getting away with something by watching.

Twisted Tales

If any of this sounds a little derivative, rest assured that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) isn’t just dropping references – though a stolen plot point from Pitch Black is pretty blatant — but twisting some of them.

Longtime fantasy fans will appreciate the casting of both Robin Wright and Ray Winstone in roles that run counter to their own signature roles in the genre. The Princess Bride’s Buttercup has become a wicked queen of whom Prince Humperdinck would be proud, while Robin of Sherwood’s former angry, bereaved Will Scarlet is now a massively compromised patriarch. Angela Bassett also drops in to show that among her many, many great talents, a perfect English accent isn’t one. But at least it’s funny.

Damsel. Ray Winstone as Lord Bayford in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2024

Significantly older viewers won’t likely be surprised by any of the major dramatic beats here, but Damsel feels intended more as a gateway movie for the youngsters. They’ve grown up with Brown, and are probably ready to see her face a monster that actually talks and acts back. Fresnadillo was entirely correct to spend the most money on said creature, which mostly appears on fully realized cave sets.

It remains mildly mystifying, though, why the exteriors were shot on location in Portugal, since the digital augmentation renders the actual landscape all but irrelevant. There’s a creepy bit early on involving giant statues that would work so much more effectively if we believed for even a moment that they were actually there on set.

Model Monsters

Still, unrealistic effects have never been a deal-breaker where fantasy is concerned. Ray Harryhausen’s many stop-motion creations aren’t exactly fooling anyone as to their origins as maquettes, nor has the original King Kong been mistaken for a live ape since maybe the 1940s. Yet their movies still work, because all involved commit to the material.

Likewise, Brown and Aghdashloo may never have seen or even heard one another while playing their scenes, but they convince us in a way the digital parapets can’t. Brown deserves to play opposite great human actors like this without the fantasy trappings as well, but she’s so good at pretending the invisible-to-her monster is actually there that she should never completely abandon such things.

Damsel. Cr. Netflix ©2023

Unlike all the movies it’s referencing, Damsel isn’t likely to become a new classic – it’s just too predictable overall. In spite of that, it’s still pretty fun for good chunks of the run-time. Though the ending suggests a possible sequel, nobody really needs that, but if Brown really does want to be the next Milla Jovovich for a while, I have no problem with that whatsoever.

Grade: 3/5

Damsel premieres Mar. 8 on Netflix


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