Bright and colourful Italian cartoon Winx Club gets the Riverdale treatment, seemingly losing sight of the appeal of the original
Starring Abigail Cowen, Hannah van der Westhuysen, Precious Mustapha, Eliot Salt, Elisha Applebaum, Danny Griffin, Sadie Soverall, Freddie Thorp, Eva Birthistle, Robert James-Collier, Eve Best, and Lesley Sharp
Based upon Italian cartoon Winx Club about a group of fairy best friends who use their various powers to defeat nefarious adversaries, fans of the original were doubtless hoping for a bright, heartwarming tale of female empowerment with a positive depiction of meaningful, healthy friendships. The result, with Vampire Diaries‘ writer Brian Young acting as showrunner, lacks much of the warmth of the source material, being adapted in a similar way to Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by replacing the family friendly with morally grey, and aggressively sexually charged, as well as a filter on every shot which seems to dull most colours.
Fate: The Winx Saga actually made quite a big deal of the concept of altering one’s own predestined path, but, despite this, the series itself features very little of this theme, as the importance of protagonist Bloom (Abigail Cowen) is not made overly clear to her until later in the series, and even then the audience is aware of it more than she is. It’s also just an awkward, clunky and wordy title in general.
Regardless, Fate: The Winx Saga follows Bloom as she enrols at fairy college Alfea in a mystical realm known as the Otherworld. Up until a pretty tragic recent incident, Bloom, whose fairy powers are fire-based, was unaware that she was magic, and is the typical audience surrogate as she navigates this new, and strange, world. Alfea College trains its fairy students to hone their magic, and Bloom is joined in her studies by light fairy and princess of Solaria Stella (Hannah van der Westhuysen), athletic and disciplined water fairy Aisha (Precious Mustapha), awkward but scrappy earth fairy Terra (Eliot Salt) and distant, standoffish mind fairy Musa (Elisha Applebaum).
Whilst attempting to overcome her immense fear of losing control of her colossal amounts of power, Bloom is also determined to discover the truth of her origins, and how she, a fairy, came to be in the non-magical world. She also manages to get closer to Sky (Danny Griffin), one of the Specialists also taught at Alfea, who are trained in warrior combat to work alongside the Fairies. However, the more that Bloom discovers about her past, the more secrets about the Otherworld she unearths, threatening the safety of all at Alfea.
Unlike the cheerful tone of the source material, Fate: The Winx Saga feels more like it would be better suited to the CW, in which their common understanding of being a teenager is mentioning weed and sex aggressively often in a way that feels in no way organic or natural, and instead shoehorned in by writers who are far, far old enough to know better. Along with the edgier tone, down to the muted colour palette, comes characters with angst. Angst, as we all know, is essential to making a children’s cartoon into something palatable to young adults.
Unfortunately, the angst within these characters does not make them deeper, or indeed more relatable. For the most part it makes them irritating and unlikable. Our central character, Bloom, who should be the audience’s surrogate instead spends the vast majority of the runtime making questionable decisions and lashing out at those around her, because obviously nobody understands the pain that she is going through. Moreover, they won’t, because she lacks healthy communication skills and her blinkered poor decision-making is integral to the plot. Her chemistry with Sky also appears to be for no other reason than she visually stands out, as the only character who wears bold colours, with flame-red hair and an American accent. They flirt from the moment she first arrives, and learn precious little about the other during the entire series. In fact, Sky could pretty much be replaced by a cardboard cut out of any “popular nice guy”.
Stella is shown to be spoiled and unpleasant, generally criticising those around her, while Aisha is such a creature of routine that she is ridiculously judgemental. Neither of them expand beyond these tropes or ideas, and though Stella’s rough edges do become smoother, it still does not foster much of a warm atmosphere within our central group.
Musa and Terra fare better, as they are actually given storylines away from Bloom’s. Musa’s distance and boundaries are contextualised by being a mind fairy and constantly having to experience the emotions of those around her. Her relationship with Terra’s brother Sam (Jacob Dudman) is also the only healthy and developed depiction in the series. Terra, meanwhile, struggles to find her place socially and blossoms in her level of confidence and inner strength. Eliot Salt is actually one of the best things about the show, bringing with her some sorely needed body diversity, though still has to put up with lines to the effect of “Dad, brother, I know that the patriarchy has programmed you to protect women from unpleasant emotions, but I’ve got this”, as if that’s actually how literally anybody in this world speaks. Furthermore, these two characters, while being delightful, are also awkwardly the only two of the Winx who have been whitewashed. Musa was originally depicted as being Chinese, based upon Lucy Liu, and while Elisha Applebaum is part-Singaporean, Asian heritages are not interchangeable. Terra is a new creation for the show, but replaces Flora, a character with the same earth-based powers, a Latina fairy.
Though basing lots of the action around a school and training is a tried-and-tested premise, in the vein of a slightly strange, sexy Harry Potter, the world building as a whole is somewhat lacking. The information the audience is fed comes in dribs and drabs, and whenever it is used as a plot reveal, it’s always a new mythical creature being suddenly invented. There’s no sense of the dynamics or history of the realm, or what the Otherworld is meant to be before it suddenly starts to appear sinister. Talks of changelings, Burned Ones, blood witches are plentiful, yet lacking in formal definition or depth. There’s vague references to a Queen, but little explanation of how the world as a whole functions. Ultimately, the realising of the whole fantasy world is a little flimsy and the show could have spent longer enmeshing the audience within this realm before upending it.
The connection between the central characters certainly appears to be lacking. Despite appearing on posters together, and the creators clearly being aware that they should be friends, they also seem to lack a basic understanding of how friendship works, of which a fairly large part is a) listening to each other and b) responding to each other. Half of the time when a character is talking, the other just sits there silently. In Terra’s case, when she’s feeling especially undesirable and speaks to Bloom about it, Bloom doesn’t give her any words of comfort to lifts her spirit, but just sort of nods vaguely in her direction. Little work is done to actually help these girls bond, so when they do band together it doesn’t feel natural, and little digs at the other’s personalities make it seem as if they don’t actually like each other that much. Obviously, writing as a Netflix season, the goal was to unite the girls by the end, but a lot more could have been done to make this friendship feel more realistic and wholesome, as a huge part of the appeal of the cartoon came from the bond that the characters shared.
The actual unfolding of the backstory is intriguing, with the revelations that the adults in charge have kept huge secrets from our younger characters. It taps into a larger theme of an older generation making decisions for those that come afterwards, and how the younger generation lacks agency in those moves. It also explores how, even though they view their actions as right, there’s a grey area and a nuance surrounding it still. With so much misinformation flying around about different characters’ actual motivations and the way new plot revelations come, it’s quite tricky for the viewer to work out whose side they are on either. Ultimately, the decisions of the older characters have had a massive impact upon Bloom and Beatrix (Sadie Soverall). It’s clear that more secrets lurk underneath our current understanding of past events, despite some characters’ assertions that they are acting in the name of the greater good.
Fate: The Winx Saga stands reasonably well on its own, as a separate entity from Winx Club. There is a suitable level of action and intrigue, though ultimately its characters and their relationships are not well developed. With the dramatic events of the finale paving the way for a Season 2 with a new status quo, hopefully the series will spend more time with the central group and increase their rapport and bond before adding unnecessary wrinkles in an already messy backstory.
Fate: The Winx Saga is streaming now on Netflix.