What makes a Disney+ show a Disney+ show? This is the question that executives have faced since development on the hugely expensive (and just-as-hugely successful) direct-to-consumer streaming platform began and was complicated by the studio’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, which gave them a majority hold (and eventual complete ownership) over Hulu as well. Shows like High Fidelityand Love, Victor were deemed too risqué for the family-friendly Disney+ migrated to the more all-ages Hulu. But what if something proves too kid friendly for Hulu? Then it moves the other way, to Disney+. That is the case with the extremely charming The Mysterious Benedict Society, a lushly produced literary adaptation that might be too cuddly for Hulu but thankfully still retains some edge.(This is, after all, a family television show premiering at the highfalutin Tribeca Film Festival.)
Based on the series of young adult novels by American author Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society takes place in what feels like a sweetly surreal, slightly displaced American Northwest sometime in the mid-20th century (judging by the cars, which are from the ‘40s to the ‘70s and the fact that nobody has a cellular phone). This is where we meet Reynie Muldoon (Mystic Inscho), a precocious young orphan with a keen intelligence but still no family. He’s encouraged by a woman who works at the orphanage to try out for a contest; first prize is admission to a ritzy boarding school. He goes to take a series of tests, one more bizarre than the last, and finds himself in the company of several other brilliant misfits – spunky tomboy Kate Weatherall (Emmy DeOliveir), shy George ‘Sticky’ Washington (Seth Carr) and brash Constance Contraire (Marta Timofeeva). It turns out that they were brought together not to attend some elite institution but to aid in a mysterious benefactor, the titular Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale) in destroying a mind-numbing nefarious energy called The Emergency that is making people hopeless, angry, and apathetic (shades of Brad Bird’s under-appreciated Tomorrowland). Having very little else to do and enraptured by both Benedict and his benevolent view of the future, they sign on and give themselves a moniker – The Mysterious Benedict Society.
The series’ first episode was directed by James Bobin, something of a Disney favorite thanks to 2011’s The Muppets, its underrated sequel Muppets Most Wanted, and 2016’s high profile follow-up Alice Through the Looking Glass. Bobin brings a playful visual sophistication to the first episode, with a constantly moving camera, expertly composed frames, and visual flourishes like split-screens and animation within the frame. In its nonstop energy and deadpan tone it feels like if Wes Anderson had directed Ocean’s Eleven but cast a bunch of little kids as the criminal gang. By the second episode, also screened for critics, the stylistic tics have lessened slightly; the direction is more anonymous and plainer and the emphasis is, instead, on the story, which devoid of those flourishes is more elaborate. (It involves a break-in at Benedict’s sanctuary and the kids being sent on a mission to a shadowy island fortress called The Institute.)
That isn’t to say the second episode is bad, per se. All of the actors are really great, whether it’s Kristen Schaal as Benedict’s put-upon second-in-command or Ryan Hurst as burly muscle Milligan, or the younger stars, many of whom you are undoubtedly seeing for the first time. And the snappy energy and extreme art direction lends both episodes a hipper-than-thou feeling that feels cool and elevated from the normal Disney+ fare. Even the threat, given a vague name and an existential power, feels more abstract and more dangerous. (The kids in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series are adorable but they’re also very relatable; the kids in The Mysterious Benedict Society are up to stuff.) Besides being aimed at a younger crowd, The Mysterious Benedict Society makes even more sense on Disney+ when you realize that it can be watched alongside a pair of Anderson’s stop motion marvels – The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. If those aren’t “watch next” suggestions, the algorithm is doing something wrong.
If you aren’t totally sold on the world and the characters, keep watching through episode two. There’s a fairly big twist that concludes the episode that was unfortunately spoiled in marketing materials ahead of time but still packs a wallop, and by then you will probably have become invested in the adorable orphans, their quest for redemption, and the makeshift family they’ve fashioned for themselves. Other viewers might be turned off by the aesthetic or the strangeness (“What year is this set in?” they’ll angrily shout at their television sets and iPads). I was totally enchanted by the world, by the boldness of the storytelling and by the subtlety and nuance of the characters and the comedy. It makes sense that the series was adapted for television by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, a pair of screenwriters that oscillate between big, four-quadrant studio fare like the Ride Along movies and more esoteric projects like The Invitation and Destroyer (both for Jennifer’s Body director/national treasure Karyn Kusama). These are filmmakers who know the importance of crowd-pleasing while also being drawn to films that are more challenging (but just as rewarding). That’s the nifty little space The Mysterious Benedict Society finds itself in; artier than you think but still a fun family romp. And I can’t wait to see where it’s headed next.