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Disney’s Mysterious Benedict Society holds all the keys to kid-show success

It lands somewhere between Spy Kids and A Series of Unfortunate Events

The Mysterious Benedict Society, Disney Plus’s newest live-action series, has all the components a great kid classic needs. Judging by the two episodes provided for critics, the show evokes the same sensibilities as Spy Kids and Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events — and not just because kids are the heroes. Certainly having children in situations where only they can save the day is part of the appeal in all three cases. But there are a good number of bad stories with kid heroes. Spy Kids and A Series of Unfortunate Events are memorable for the way they draw on unique visual palettes to create distinct settings. The Mysterious Benedict Society replicates that feat, making the first two episodes visually memorable.

Based on the 2007 book by Trenton Lee Stewat, the show follows an orphan named Reynie (Mystic Inscho) who takes a test for gifted children. It turns out that the test — full of tricky brain teasers and unexpected puzzles — is actually being run by the mysterious Mr. Benedict (Arrested Development’s Tony Hale), who wants to assemble a team of precocious children. The world is being threatened by “The Emergency” — what that is, no one exactly knows, but Mr. Benedict figured out that the threat is being subliminally broadcast through television and radio programming, using children’s voices to relate increasingly panicked messaging.

a girl in mismatched clothes standing in front of an old-fashioned tv Image: Disney Plus

In order to figure out who is behind this, he needs a team of children to infiltrate the academy where the messages seem to be originating. Enter Reynie and his friends: Sticky (Seth Carr), a nervous boy with an eidetic memory; Kate (Emmy DeOliveira), a resourceful circus runaway who goes everywhere with her trusty bucket; and Constance (Marta Timofeeva), a recalcitrant young Russian girl who picks fights with literally everyone.

While the characters are interesting and the plot tentatively exciting, the first two episodes really highlight the show’s setting. The set design and costumes carefully create a funky world that is nebulous in both time and place. There are references to real-life countries, animals, and plants, but the locations the characters visit are named Stonetown and Harbor Island — completely vague, and easy to adapt to most countries. Visually, the show draws on a slightly retro look, with characters sporting mid-century outfits. Televisions exist, but they’re the pre-flatscreen kind, with knobs and wheels. The Mysterious Benedict Society doesn’t feel like a period piece, so much as it feels like it takes place in a universe just left of ours.

two women pour over files at a desk in a dark academia style office Image: Disney Plus

But it isn’t only pleasing to the eye. The set details also deliciously augment the plot. Mr. Benedict’s study is full of books and knickknacks, his house a cozy version of the popular Dark Academia aesthetic. When the students depart for the prestigious academy where they will be doing their reconnaissance mission, the difference is stark — the impressively clean and sanitized hallways bring to mind a sort of retro-futuristic look (think Disney’s Tomorrowland), which really hammers the difference between the academy and the snug, vintage feel of Mr. Benedict’s house.

Only those opening episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society are currently streaming, but already, the stage is set — literally — for a quirky adventure in a fully realized world, with a unique setting and compelling characters. As the kids dive deeper into the mystery behind The Emergency, they’re sure to encounter more oddities. It’s a reality separate from our own, but sharing just enough that it is easy to imagine that such an adventure could happen in our world, with just a little heightened twist.

The first two episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society are now streaming on Disney Plus. New episodes drop on Fridays.