Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Review: Damsel

Netflix's new CGI dragon and Millie Bobbie Brown vehicle is a perfectly fine fairy tale romp aimed at the YA audience.  

Like many a fairy tale, Damsel begins with a young woman, Elodie, who is given away in marriage to the noble family of Aurea, her dowry a last-ditch effort to save her people from starvation. Little does she know that her new family has a sinister secret — they have to sacrifice three brides to appease the evil dragon who lives in the nearby cave, and Elodie is the first to be tossed callously into the yawning chasm. 

The vast majority of the movie is spent following Elodie as she explores the dark cavern evading the vengeful dragon (her dragon infants were mercilessly slaughtered once upon a time, so in recompense she demands the same sacrifice in perpetuity, a scaly, fire-breathing Miss Havisham if ever there was one). We see the names of dozens of women who were sacrificed before carved into the wall, a gruesome reminder of the brides that preceded Elodie.

This being a Netflix movie, though, and Elodie being Millie Bobbie Brown, things will be different this time around. She manages to outsmart the dragon and convince her that she's been tricked for generations, leading her to join Elodie's quest for vengeance against the evil royal family, complete with a finale scene of fire-breathing destruction against the House of Aurea. My favorite Letterboxd review aptly quipped, "Targaryan origin story."

One part The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, one part How To Train Your Dragon, and one part Dragonheart, Damsel is an entertaining YA fantasy-horror romp. I say horror because there are some fairly gruesome wounds and dragon-induced deaths — more than I expected, actually. 

As I thought about it for a bit, I've decided that the dragon sacrifice plot could be seen as a metaphor for the unknown horrors that awaited young women throughout history who were given away unwillingly in marriage. 

At one point in Damsel, Elodie's father expresses sincere regret about trading her for a jewel-laden dowry. In real life, of course, women don't ritual blood sacrifices to reptilian creatures, but they are taken far away from their families, isolated in cold and dank castles, and often times neglected by their new family. 

It's a scary prospect, maybe ever scarier than facing an enormous dragon eye to eye. Fortunately, in this film, the damsel saves herself and ends up back with her family — and a new scaly family protector. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: Robin Wright and Angela Basset are always a fun addition to any cast; the dragon special effects are stellar

Penalties: Not particularly groundbreaking.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.