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‘Damsel’ pits Millie Bobby Brown against a dragon, and it’s a more than fair fight

Millie Bobby Brown might have grown up before our eyes thanks to “Stranger Things,” but she has already shown herself to be a savvy steward of her career. Those smart choices have made Brown a major asset for Netflix as she follows “Enola Holmes” with the entertaining “Damsel,” which seizes on the “Princess, rescue thyself” theme in a grim-but-not-your-average-fairy-tale way.

Indeed, “Damsel” sets out to turn a lot of familiar tropes on their heads, from traditional views of fair maidens and handsome princes to stepmothers and dragons. The only shame, really, is that the trailer inevitably gives away the biggest twist, which makes the first 30 minutes or so feel a bit obligatory, albeit necessary, building up to the fire-breathing action that follows.

It all starts innocently enough, as Brown’s Princess Elodie unexpectedly receives an offer of marriage from a faraway kingdom, an opulent land with the requisite dashing prince (Nick Robinson) and regal queen (Robin Wright, the empowered heroine in “The Princess Bride,” among other things). Once there, though, Elodie’s father, the King (Ray Winstone), seems uneasy, while her stepmother (Angela Bassett) fears there’s something not quite right about Elodie’s future in-laws.

Angela Bassett co-stars as the princess' stepmother in "Damsel." - John Wilson/Netflix
Angela Bassett co-stars as the princess' stepmother in "Damsel." - John Wilson/Netflix

She’s onto something there, since as soon as Elodie says “I do,” the prince and his mom attempt to sacrifice Elodie – now a part of their royal family – to a fearsome dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo), forcing the princess to shed her bejeweled gown and jump into action-hero mode to survive. Along the way, she begins to realize how many young women have preceded her in meeting this horrible fate, which only fuels her resolve.

Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (“28 Weeks Later”) from a script by Dan Mazeau (and counting Brown, naturally, among the producers), “Damsel” owes its strongest debt to the 1981 movie “Dragonslayer,” which also featured a brave female character, even if the actual dragon fighting fell to a guy.

More recently, Hulu’s “The Princess” cast Joey King in a spare and violent take on butt-kicking royalty, which mostly underscores how you can have what looks like the same idea and execute it in markedly different ways. By that measure, “Damsel” more cleverly turns expectations on their heads while serving as a nifty showcase for Brown, who spends a fair amount of screen time alone other than the impressive special effects.

Granted, even with those pyrotechnics, the film has an old-fashioned “B movie” vibe, which, for a project headed straight to Netflix, is almost exactly as it should be. As for the feminist message wrapped into the premise, it’s merely further evidence that Brown, at the ripe old age of 20, looks like a boss both on screen and off.

“Damsel” premieres March 8 on Netflix. It’s rated PG-13.

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