What’s new, folks? When the trailer dropped for the Disney+ TV adaptation of The Mysterious Benedict Society, the children’s book by Trenton Lee Stewart, it drew me in immediately with its offbeat aesthetic. This is an element that shines through in the first entry of Stewart’s series, which I read last year in preparation for the show. Consisting of eight episodes, it kicked off with a double-episode premiere on June 25 and wrapped up on August 13. Co-created by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (co-writers of Aeon Flux and The Invitation), TMBS is as quirky and refreshing as it promised itself to be.
The premise: In response to The Emergency—an inexplicable atmosphere of disquiet that has been spreading through the news and looming over the entire globe in a manner not dissimilar to the current state of our society—eccentric and narcoleptic Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale, Veep) heads down the route of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and A Wrinkle in Time by recruiting children in his mission to save the world. The four kids who are up to snuff are introverted leader Reynie Muldoon (Mystic Inscho), quiz show whiz George “Sticky” Washington (Seth Carr, who played young Killmonger in Black Panther), tough-as-nails bucket-wielder Kate Wetherall (Emmy DeOliveira), and wonderfully sarcastic and stubborn Constance Contraire (Marta Kessler).
TMBS is just plain delightful right from the get-go. It proves that family entertainment is perfectly capable of raising the quality bar and talking up to its audience rather than dumbing itself down merely because it’s being targeted at kids. The Wes Anderson vibes are prominent here, what with the unabashedly whimsical tenor, the timeless fusion of mid-20th century inspirations in the costume design and the set design, the playful score by Joseph Shirley (Netflix’s Bad Trip) and Theodore Shapiro (The Invitation, Trolls World Tour), and the pastel color palette. The Roald Dahl crowd will love TMBS as well for its Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque tests and puzzles. Without getting into spoilers, some changes, both major and minor, have been made in the adaptation. While I could have done without a few of them, most were acceptable, and I even applauded some of the modifications for improving upon what Stewart had already put on paper.
Revolving a property around child actors is always a risky enterprise, but I was satisfied with the kids on TMBS. While Inscho does feel stiff as Reynie for the first couple episodes, he eventually gets in touch with his role as the humble leader of the central youngsters. Carr’s Sticky registers as an endearing nerd, especially when the show breaks down his angst. DeOliveira brings a spunky bluntness to Kate that meshes well with her on-the-page personality. Kessler’s delivery of the deadpan sarcasm that Constance uses to annihilate her companions is top-notch.
Having pictured Mr. Benedict as a cross between Albert Einstein and Willy Wonka, Hale wouldn’t have been my first pick to play him. He slips into the role perfectly, though, going against type by portraying his idiosyncrasies with a comedic energy that’s subdued instead of exaggerated. Furthermore, Hale also plays Mr. L.D. Curtain, the mastermind behind The Emergency and Mr. Benedict’s twin brother. The stark contrast between the scruffy, neurotic Mr. Benedict and the suave, unflappable Mr. Curtain is evidence of Hale’s impressive range.
Mr. Benedict’s assistants are an entertaining bunch, too, consisting of Number Two (Kristen Schaal, Bill & Ted Face the Music), who certainly resembles a number two pencil whenever she wears yellow attire; Rhonda (MaameYaa Boafo, Ramy), a Zambian woman who makes her debut by fooling Reynie (and the audience) into thinking she’s a twelve-year-old; and Milligan (Ryan Hurst, Sons of Anarchy), a gentle giant with an amnesia-clouded past. Whereas he’s depicted as a melancholy figure on the page, the adaptation portrays him on the outset in a comedic light that felt off for the character. But as the show progresses, it does let him settle down into the somber personality I know and love from the book.
Considering the pervasive anxiety we’ve all been facing for ages in regard to both the pandemic and the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it feels remarkably relevant to watch the heroes face off against The Emergency and the extras in the background repeatedly lament that “no one’s at the wheel.” This was already part of the story in Stewart’s book, which was published back in 2007. It’s amazing that this universal plight still rings true almost fifteen years later.
My personal episode ranking:
- Episode 1, “A Bunch of Smart Orphans”—directed by James Bobin, written by Hay and Manfredi
- Episode 7, “The Dance of the Celestial Orb”—directed by Shannon Kohli, written by Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer
- Episode 5, “The Art of Conveyance and Round-Trippery”—directed by Karyn Kusama, written by Taylor Mallory
- Episode 8, “Big Day Today”—directed by Mark Tonderai, written by Hay and Manfredi
- Episode 6, “Run Silent, Run Deep”—directed by Greg Beeman, written by Slavkin and Swimmer
- Episode 3, “Depends on the Wagon”—directed by Glen Winter, written by Chelsey Lora
- Episode 4, “A Whisper, Not a Shout”—directed by Wendey Stanzler, written by James Rogers III
- Episode 2, “Carrying a Bird”—directed by Beeman, written by Hay and Manfredi
In case I haven’t made it clear enough, carve out time for TMBS at the soonest possible moment. Whether you’re six or sixty, I daresay this is one of the best pieces of original content you can stream on Disney+. If you want my spoiler-filled opinions on TMBS, give a listen to the upcoming episode of 2 Cents Critic wherever you listen to podcasts. Stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 90/100