The latest piece of Disney+ programming is all dressed up but mistakes excessive chit-chat for drama.
If nothing else, the new Disney+ program The Mysterious Benedict Society reaffirms that the hallmarks of Wes Anderson’s works have gone fully mainstream. As its first episode opens with a needle drop of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Livin’ Thing” plays over a montage of various adolescents living in perfectly arranged dollhouse environments, you’d be forgiven for wondering why Tony Hale is providing the opening narration instead of Bob Balaban. Like that Series of Unfortunate Events TV show, Benedict Society shows that Anderson’s style is something even kids are supposed to be aware of nowadays.
The veneer may be Anderson but the story of Benedict Society is very much classic Disney fare, concerning a bunch of kids tasked with saving the world. In fact, it’s easy to imagine this being a singular 90-minute Disney movie in 2006. However, we’re now in the age of streaming, where everything original must be an eight-to-ten-hour long television voyage. Anywho, the show concerns a quartet of orphaned children from across the globe named Reynie (Mystic Inscho), Kate (Emmy DeOliveira), George (Seth Carr), and Constance (Marta Timofeeva).
They may seem like they have nothing in common, but they have a few shared traits. For one thing, none of them have anything in the way of family and friends. Upon being selected by Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale), they also learn that their shared love of the truth makes them essential in fighting back against a force known as The Emergency that’s spreading chaos across the globe. These eccentric adolescents will have to use their wits to go undercover and thwart the source of The Emergency.
If nothing else, The Mysterious Benedict Society is at least committed to its wordy quirky spirit. Every actor, young and old, is dialing up their oddball factor to eleven. Meanwhile, all the mid-20th-century costumes and sets are sharply detailed. Certain areas like Mr. Benedict’s study already look primed and ready to be turned into an Easter egg filled waiting area for a Disneyland attraction. This whole aesthetic isn’t quite like anything else in the biggest Disney+ TV shows, such as The Mandalorian, and that’s commendable.
Still, writers and series creators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi could stand to utilize that commitment to something a bit more unique. Despite having characters that wear their idiosyncratic nature on their sleeve, the first two episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society are a bit short on true blue strangeness. Instead, much of these inaugural installments are dedicated to expository dialogue laying out every detail of Benedict’s mindset and the various tragic backstories of the principal leads. It’s hard to be truly weird when you’re so busy explaining your yourself.
All of this non-stop chatter makes the prolonged runtimes of the individual stories feel especially stretched out. Running between 48 and 50 minutes each, the first two episodes of Benedict Society feel too slow for both adolescent and adult viewers alike. The character dynamics particularly get hindered under such lengthy confines. The same beats between characters (especially everyone’s frustration with the petulant Constance) are run into the ground. Whittling these stories down to a half-hour format would have done wonders for pacing.
Also proving puzzling is The Emergency, the primary source of conflict. Though this series is adapted from collection of books that ran from 2007 to 2009, the impact of this nefarious force evokes the state of the world in 2021. Division runs rampant in a society where nobody trusts each other and the truth no longer matters. All that’s missing is people turning to GoFundMe pages to finance their life-saving surgeries. Apparently, all of these horrible problems emanate not from systemic institutions or conscious bigotry but from The Emergency, a broadcast that influences people to act mean.
If nothing else, The Mysterious Benedict Society is at least committed to its wordy quirky spirit.
It’s another weird example of Disney+ programming (following in the footsteps of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) dipping their toes into acknowledging the political climate of 2021 but still wanting to tie a tidy Disney ribbon on it. After all, to acknowledge systems of oppression that feed division in America would also mean recognizing corrupt forces that Disney both benefits from and contributes to. So new boogeymen (or at least ones cribbed from Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland) are offered up to offer distractions from where the real origins of societal ills.
Embracing a generically defined force called “The Emergency” doesn’t just see The Mysterious Benedict Society play into problematic sociopolitical elements of modern Disney programming. It also offers a nebulous source of conflict that doesn’t instill much danger or weight to the proceedings. Maybe the show should have focused more on just low-key character interactions and visual gags than social commentary and exposition. Those former qualities are really where the show succeeds, especially regarding Ryan Hurst’s Milligan.
With his big beard and tall stature, Milligan towers over even the other adults in the cast. Your eye’s immediately drawn to him and Hurst maintains your attention through his soft-spoken but firm comedic line deliveries. Meanwhile, Tony Hale is another standout in the adult cast playing the titular Mr. Benedict. Hale has always excelled at portraying endearing souls just seconds away from a complete nervous breakdown, and that quality serves the part of the frazzled but still somewhat hopeful Mr. Benedict. Poor Kristen Schaal doesn’t have much to do in these first two episodes but here’s to hoping she gets more down the road.
Over the course of its initial two hours, The Mysterious Benedict Society registers as a visual treat complete with aspect ratio changes whose best gags and moments suggest something special, a live-action kids show that doesn’t talk down to children. How disappointing, then, that these same episodes stumble with lame attempts at social commentary and subpar pacing. There is potential in here, though, especially through the committed performances from the cast. But right now The Mysterious Benedict Society needs more mysteries and fewer answers.
The Mysterious Benedict Society premieres on Disney+ June 25th.