The King’s Daughter is an expensive-looking fantasy epic that spent close to a decade on the shelf, only to creep into wide release on a barren weekend in January, with relatively little advance promotion. Based on this anti-pedigree and its wild fantasy plot about magic and mermaid-murder, it has all the makings of a glorious cinematic disaster. So it’s perversely disappointing to learn that it’s a middling family-friendly movie with mere undertones of oddness.
The film is based on Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1997 novel The Moon and the Sun, the fantasy that beat George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones to the 1997 Best Novel Nebula Award. her book is a hybrid of sci-fi and historical romance that includes sea monsters, hidden treasure, forbidden love, and the Pope. The movie is considerably simplified from that story — it’s a fantasy-adventure with hastily added, largely redundant Julie Andrews narration to give it the veneer of a cozy fairy tale.
In this form, its story concerns Marie-Josèphe (Kaya Scodelario), the headstrong secret daughter of 17th-century French king Louis XIV (Pierce Brosnan). Louis has captured a mermaid (Fan Bingbing), who he plans to sacrifice during an eclipse, so he can sap its life force and achieve immortality. Marie-Josèphe’s tentative relationship with the mermaid gets in the way of that plan. Yet The King’s Daughter is rarely as weird as that description. It offers the bittersweet spectacle of a pretty loony movie trying its best to become a more conventional one. Maybe an outright boondoggle would have been more memorable.
It’s no accident that all this sounds like a flashback to the mid-2010s, when slightly odd (but not quite odd enough) epics like 2013’s 47 Ronin and 2014’s Seventh Son attempted to mount large-canvas fantasy stories fueled by producers’ notions of capitalizing on the success of Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter films, and/or the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Though it’s officially a 2022 release, The King’s Daughter was shot a whopping eight years ago, right around the time Seventh Son and 47 Ronin were beating a swift retreat from theaters everywhere. Paramount announced an early 2015 release date, but mere weeks before it was due onscreen, the movie disappeared from the release calendar without explanation. Little has been heard about the project since, beyond vague rumblings that additional time was needed to work on its visual effects. Eventually, the movie wound up with a smaller distributor, Gravitas Ventures.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about The King’s Daughter is that it doesn’t immediately give the impression that it’s been moldering on the shelf for the better part of a decade. That can probably be chalked up to a combination of industry-wide visual-effects stagnation (blurry CG has become evergreen!) and Scodelario’s seemingly ageless charm. Looking closer, there are moments where it feels slightly out of step with this decade, like the way Marie-Josèphe is assigned a lady-in-waiting, Magali (Crystal Clarke), who’s really a cheerfully supportive stock Black friend with no particular personality or goals of her own. (The book acknowledges slavery; the movie drops one line about Magali being ripped from her family, then never meaningfully returns to her.)
There are also better remnants of the past, like the fact that much of the movie uses location shooting and real sets, both of which have fallen out of fashion for big-budget fantasy works in recent years. The baseline visual splendor here is surprisingly strong, though director Sean McNamara doesn’t assemble the beautiful sights with much rhythm — sometimes scenes cut off abruptly, and the multitude of credited editors suggests a great deal of tinkering.
McNamara has a startlingly prolific career, dashing back and forth between big-screen inspirational dramas like The Miracle Season or Soul Surfer and direct-to-video sequels to movies he didn’t originate, like Cats & Dogs 3 or Casper Meets Wendy. His studio movies often have a faint sheen of Christian piety, and The King’s Daughter continues this trend by having a priest (William Hurt) speak out against the sin of mermaid-killing. On its own, this almost counts as novelty: a movie priest who actually attempts to live by his stated moral code, rather than hiding, enabling, or outright preaching a nefarious agenda. (Though he does engage in some desultory morning-after confession chats with the king, who he lets off the hook for various romantic entanglements.)
In this context, though, the story pits religion against science in an unfair fight: One side, comprised of 17th-century villains, advocates for the “science” of draining a mermaid’s life in what’s essentially a mystical rite, while the good guys believe that killing is both wrong and, in this case, an affront to God, defying normal human mortality.
Apart from the pious moralizing, that subplot distracts from what should be the two core relationships of the movie. One is the father-daughter awkwardness between Louis and Marie-Josèphe, who was sent away to grow up in a convent, and had no idea she descends from royalty. The movie elides the cruelty of this situation by simply not having her mind much. By the time she finds out that the king who has summoned her to Versailles is really her father, they’ve already formed a tenuous bond, which is immediately threatened by his dual-track plan to kill the mermaid and marry his daughter off to a loathsome duke.
Still, at least it’s fun to watch Scodelario and Brosnan lean into their willful, melodramatic conflicts while wearing fabulous costumes. The other driving relationship in the movie, between Marie-Josèphe and the mermaid, develops largely off-screen. Chinese star Fan Bingbing doesn’t contribute a performance, so much as likeness rights: She serves as the visual basis for a CG mermaid who never feels “all but human,” as Marie-Josèphe claims. Scodelario also has a love story with a fisherman played by Benjamin Walker.
Though the two actors became real-life partners after shooting the film together, there are only traces of that chemistry in this movie. It’s hard for any other characters to compete with the attention the filmmakers lavish on Scodelario. Every shot of her seems haloed with ethereal beauty, but the story is mostly too busy highlighting her specialness to let her connect with her scene partners. “Look at these girls… I don’t fit in here,” the absolutely gorgeous woman muses at one point while looking at other gorgeous women. At the same time, she displays almost no discomfort over moving from a convent to court, beyond insisting that she doesn’t need makeup to look good.
It’s understandable that the film seems fixated on its star at the expense of the other characters. Scodelario does have real charisma, which she’s since shown off in more menacing genre fare like Crawl and the recent Resident Evil reboot. Here, she’s stuck auditioning for future plucky-princess parts in a project that rarely shows the courage of its own ridiculousness. McNamara treats the material earnestly, but there’s calculation underneath — the final film lacks the heedless, gleeful world-building of a gonzo blockbuster. (That shortcoming is something else it shares with Seventh Son and 47 Ronin.) Even in the kid-movie realm, it isn’t quite engaging enough to work as more than a passing distraction with a few neat design touches. A movie where the star-crossed lovers spend this much time brooding in an elaborate mermaid grotto should be a lot more entertaining than The King’s Daughter.
The King’s Daughter debuts in theaters Jan. 21. Find tickets here.