There’s an undeniable joy in seeing a beloved childhood book receive the movie or TV show treatment. The world and characters you imagined in your head are suddenly given a concrete image, and if done well, they’re able to take you back to the time and place you were in when you first experienced that story.
This is the feeling The Mysterious Benedict Society attempts to create in its new Disney+ adaptation of the 2007 young adult novel, and it does so admirably. The first two episodes available for review reveal an impressive level of detail that remains faithful not just to the specifics of the book, but to striking a similar tone that’s full of quirky charm—with some sinister undertones.
The best way I would describe The Mysterious Benedict Society, either the book or now TV show, would be “Harry Potter if instead of having magical powers, everyone was just really nerdy.” The protagonist, 11-year-old Reynie Muldoon (Mystic Inscho), decides to take a series of bizarre tests to earn a scholarship to an elite boarding school called the Institute. He and only three other children pass, then find they have been selected for a mission to infiltrate said school and determine the identity of the “Sender,” a mysterious person who is sending subliminal messages through radio and television to weaken society.
Tony Hale plays both the main adult protagonist and antagonist in the series, appearing as both the titular Mr. Benedict, the eccentric and narcoleptic genius who sends the children on this mission, and Mr. Curtain, his nefarious twin brother and the head of the Institute. We sadly only get a glimpse at the latter in the second episode’s cliffhanger, but Hale appears to be having a lot of fun, bringing tons of whimsical energy to the show.
Although Hale also appears as a recurring character in Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, his presence is far from the only common element between the two shows. Also based on a book series for young adults and set in a similar time period (seemingly the late ‘60s, by the look of its technology and fashion), both stories focus on a small group of intelligent children tasked with taking down a secret, evil organization. As such, some similarities between their respective TV adaptations are to be expected; even so, the series’ tones are what connect the two. Both have the same feeling of humor and uneasiness, with adult actors adjusting their voices enough not to be condescending, but to sound a bit like they’re reading from a book.
Whether accidental or intentional, there’s nothing particularly wrong about taking influence from A Series of Unfortunate Events, as it’s an excellent adaptation. But by being so similar, it naturally invites comparisons between the two, and so far, I’m not as enamored by this series as I was with the other.
One of The Mysterious Benedict Society’s biggest weaknesses is unfortunately in its child cast. Seth Carr gives a cute performance as George “Sticky” Washington, a nerdy, antisocial kid who doesn’t have much confidence, but both Kate Weatherall (Emmy DeOliveira) and Reynie both struggle to fully emote, coming across as a bit flat. Constance Contraire (Marta Timofeeva) is the oddest of the group, often insulting her peers and acting in bizarre ways. Although she’s meant to be bratty and dislikable, she may have done too good of a job, as every scene she was in became overly grating and annoying. It’s never fun to criticize kids who haven’t even graduated middle school, but in a series where they’re the main characters, it’s fair to say that their performances leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps it would have been better to find slightly older and more experienced actors at the cost of remaining fully faithful to the books.
The adult cast fares significantly better. As one of my favorite comedic actresses, I was excited to see Kristen Schaal appear, but a bit disappointed to find that her quiet and serious character “Number Two” didn’t provide for any of the over-the-top weirdness she’s capable of. Ryan Hurst plays a seemingly grumpy man named Milligan who’s lost his memory and is softer than he lets on, and MaameYaa Boafo plays Rhonda, who’s able to change the appearance of her age. They all act as assistants to Mr. Benedict as well as presiding over the exams in the first episode, and although they are mostly foils for the leads, they do so well.
The first two episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society didn’t completely blow me away, but they still set up a fun and occasionally dark story that remains faithful to the source material. Even though the children’s performances fell a bit short, I hope that they’ll grow on me throughout the series. For now, the promise of Hale’s dual roles and seeing how future scenes will be presented is more than enough to convince me to keep watching.
The first two episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society come to Disney+ Friday, June 25, with subsequent episodes releasing weekly through August 6.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.
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