Cartoons made specifically for girls often emphasize friendship. Whether that means powerful fairies teaming up to save the day or glamorous super-spies on a covert mission, these shows are usually built around the kinds of fulfilling relationships between young women that are all too rare on the big screen. While cartoons made for boys, which are more likely to emphasize adventure and independence, frequently get adapted to live-action versions for older audiences, that’s been rarer for girl-focused shows. And it’s high time that changed.
Winx Club, the long-running Italian cartoon about a group of best-friend fairies, is one of the few expressly girl-focused shows to make the leap to live action, through a darker, edgier series from Vampire Diaries creator Brian Young. Netflix’s Fate: The Winx Saga casts the same spell over the bright, visually vibrant cartoon that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Riverdale did for their family-friendly Archie Comics counterparts. It has a surprisingly nuanced plot that dives into the ramifications of war across generations — but it comes at a cost, for the characters and for that familiar sense of friendship and mutual support.
[Ed. Note: This review contains slight spoilers for Fate: The Winx Saga]
Fate: The Winx Saga follows fire fairy Bloom (Abigail Cowen) as she enrolls at the Alfea school for fairies, a magical boarding school that trains high-school-age fairies all over the Otherworld. Fairies live in a separate realm than humans; different types of fairies have different powers, usually involving a natural element or tapping into psychic abilities like sensing others’ emotions. Bloom spent her whole life thinking she was a human, until a tragic accident revealed her fiery powers.
While at school, she meets four other girls: light fairy princess Stella (Hannah van der Westhuysen), athletic water fairy Aisha (Precious Mustapha), aloof mind fairy Musa (Elisha Applebaum), and plucky earth fairy Terra (Eliot Salt). Bloom just wants to learn more about her past and her magic, but the more she discovers about her mysterious origins, the more dark secrets she uncovers.
Unlike the brightly colored animated series, the new show takes a more grounded visual approach, but fails to define a distinct look of its own. The characters are more mature and edgier than their animated counterparts — in the same way that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina warped the plucky sitcom lead into a stubborn, defiant witch, Fate: The Winx Saga gives the family-friendly heroines harder edges. Glamorous Princess Stella deals with her controlling mother, Aisha’s confidence turns into nearly abrasive brashness, and Bloom’s plucky protagonist attitude pushes her to incredibly reckless decisions. It’s what the more dramatic plot demands, but it’s a stark contrast to the generally nicer characters of the cartoon.
Two remaining characters have been whitewashed: Musa and Flora, whose original animated designs were inspired by Lucy Liu and Jennifer Lopez, respectively. In Netflix’s live-action version, Flora isn’t even a character anymore — she’s now Terra, a sweet yet awkward earth fairy. Terra does add some body diversity to the otherwise stick-thin cast, but it would be more meaningful if she wasn’t the butt of every damn joke. A lot of her story revolves around her being an awkward loner, which could’ve been empowering had the rest of the cast extended a hand to her. Instead, the other girls laugh at her long rambles and constantly view her as a source of annoyance, even though she’s infallibly kind to all of them.
That generally antagonistic attitude between the girls marks the deepest contrast with the original show. The pleasure and power of magical girl shows comes from the camaraderie between characters. In Fate: The Winx Saga, the friendship feels obligatory. There are occasional touching scenes, like the girls joining Bloom to eat outside the cafeteria when she doesn’t want to face the gossiping students. But even in those scenes, it feels like the protagonists barely tolerate each other. Because so little groundwork cementing their friendships was laid, the teasing doesn’t come off as playful banter, but instead as catty and mean-spirited. A shoehorned-in love triangle between Stella, Bloom, and bland sword-wielding Sky (Freddie Throp), a student at the nearby school, only makes things worse. When they save one another, it’s not because they care, it’s an obligation: “Ugh, I probably shouldn’t let my roommate get killed.” Young’s writers seem to think that evolving girlhood friendships means turning them into thinly veiled rivalries.
But while the characters and their relationships suffer, Fate: The Winx Saga does create a compelling, nuanced plot. The worldbuilding is exciting, offering a spin on the animated series’ world of fairies and non-magical, sword-wielding Specialists (a fancy way to say knights, basically). Magic school is a tried-and-true story setup, and using the fairies’ classes to explain how their world’s magic works is efficient and intriguing.
Once the plot gets rolling — ancient, dark creatures known as the Burned Ones have resurfaced, decades after they supposedly became extinct — it weaves a compelling theme about the older generation rectifying their mistakes. But by trying to move on, the older characters have sheltered the younger generation from the truth. The younger characters know little about their world’s dark past, but the more they uncover, spurred mostly by Bloom’s quest to find more about her own history, the more they doubt the motives of their professors and mentors. The plot focuses on the scars war leaves across generations, adding layers to each character’s motives. By the end of the first season, the younger characters are left wondering whether the heroes they trusted did the right thing, whether the villainous figures had a point, and what that means for their own path going forward.
But that arc would be more compelling if the characters were likable or interesting, or if they shared even half the bonds of their animated counterparts. As it stands, while the darker and edgier plot elevates the cartoon into a story for a young adult audience, the darker and edgier characters detract. While the girls declare they’re good friends by the end of the first season, that claim never really feels earned. Still, the evil they face — not just some malevolent overlord, but societal trauma no one knows now to navigate — makes for a nuanced story that the characters could grow into, if the show continues.
The six-episode opening season of Fate: The Winx Saga premieres on Netflix on Jan. 22.