Friday, May 30, 2014

Maleficent

Not one Keyblade anywhere.

"Maleficent" is a re-imagining of Disney's classic 1959 fairy tale epic, "Sleeping Beauty"..  Broadly the idea is to transform Disney's most iconic villain, Maleficent, into a "Wicked"-style anti-hero.  So this movie reveals Maleficent's backstory, motivation, and love life, proving that she is not merely a cackling witch with an icy voice, but a misunderstood woman driven to revenge, but never losing her pure soul.  She's far more complex, with motivations both positive and negative all across the movie, to the point she's a character often at war with herself.  All of this revisionism is expertly played by Angelina Jolie, who manages to capture the late Eleanor Audley's original iconic voice and mannerisms*, while giving the character a fragility and timidness mixed with the proud anti-villain persona.

And so, Maleficent, as a character, was ruined.  This is a movie that simply does not get it.  "Sleeping Beauty" is probably as simplistic of a storyline as classic Disney ever did, featuring a villain who really had no motivations other than to be evil.  Maleficent had a great costume, a great voice, massive charisma, and was a legendary awesome villainess merely by being evil.  Creating a backstory - especially one as rote and uninteresting as this - only diminishes the character.  People already love Maleficent, they already root for her in the original, where she is by far the most impressive and memorable character.  This modern version is built up to something much more confusing, as the title character floats back and forth between good and evil, thanks to an underwhelming script and bizarre story choices.  New Maleficent looks the part, and when Jolie is tasked to play the Mistress of All Evil that we know and love, it is absolutely fantastic.  But otherwise we're left with something so much less than what we had.  The Wicked Witch was able to Defy Gravity when she was turned into an antihero, Maleficent gets her wings literally plucked.

Angelina Jolie is by far the best part of this film, and even her role does not work.  The rest of the movie unfortunately is unable to hold up even this.  "Sleeping Beauty" already was one of Disney's more flawed Princess tales, thanks to flat characters and pacing problems.  It is such a shame considering how gorgeous "Sleeping Beauty" was and still is - to this day it is Disney's prettiest animated film.  "Maleficent" keeps up that tradition of visuals over substance, unfortunately not by using the most breathtaking animation quality ever attempted in history, but by pouring CG all over the place.  Since this is a fantasy blockbuster made in the 21st century, there is of course stupid bloated battle scenes, lots of flying creatures and cartoony-worlds made to look dazzling, but instead looking forgettable.  "Avatar" was four years ago, nobody is falling for CG forests anymore, Hollywood.  Combine that with a bad story and characters perhaps even more flat and uninteresting than they were back in 1959, and you end with a movie blaring meticulously animated landscapes full of whimsey and magic, all failing before a disinterested crowd who will begin checking their watches within five minutes.

At least on the surface, the idea of this movie had me interested.  I had no idea what they were trying to do with a movie about a Good Maleficent - what possible kind of story were they trying to tell?  And having seen the film, I'm still asking that same question.  The idea here is that the "Sleeping Beauty" world is expanded into a universal war between the human realm and the fairy realm, with Maleficent being the mighty winged champion of the Fair Folk.  As a child she had a brief romance with a young boy, who grows up to be the ambitious Stephan (Sharlto Cooper, decidedly keeping his South African accent).  Stephan, promised his chance at the crown, betrays Maleficent and cuts away her wings, making him king of Disneyland and driving Maleficent to plot her revenge.  This sets the stage for the same basic plot as "Sleeping Beauty", with Maleficent cursing Stephan's child, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) to die on her sixteenth birthday.

But then things go off the rails in the worst way.

Those cheekbones really steal the show.
Aurora is taken to live with the Three Good Fairies, Knotgrass, Flittle, and Thistlewit** (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and quite randomly, Juno Temple).  Where once these characters were lovable heroic dimwits, in this film they are dangerously neglectful and self-centered, to the point the baby they were supposed to be raising would have died of malnutrition within days.  So Maleficent finds herself stepping up to basically raise the child with her magic... because otherwise the child will die before Maleficent gets a chance to murder her(?).  Does that make sense to you?  Because it makes no sense to me.

It is at this point that the motivations of the characters become hopelessly confusing.  Maleficent and Aurora wind up becoming loving friends (but not friendly lovers, lesbian subtext notwithstanding), which is sure unusual considering Maleficent wanted to kill the girl not two scenes ago.  There were ways for this to have possibly worked, and it sounds like an interesting dynamic on paper, with Maleficent being a complex character who can be both a tormenter and a mentor to the very same character.  However, when actually seen in theaters, it makes very little sense.  I even respect what the writers are trying to do, but like so much in this movie, it is ruined by the script, which rushes through everything without letting the audience get a grounding as to what is happening.  We find ourselves in this incomprehensible situation where the every element of the story has been thrown upsidedown, but yet the story continues exactly as it originally unfolded.  When the script is not flat-out telling you what characters are thinking through fairy tale-style voice over narration it is changing tone wildly every few seconds.

By the way, screenwriters, here is a hint:  if you need to add voice over narration to explain what is happening in a scene, you're doing it wrong.

Kinda bitchy complaint, but I don't think Aurora is pretty enough in this movie.  Sorry.
At merely ninety minutes long, "Maleficent" is surprisingly short for the story it is trying to tell.  It means many relationships are terribly rushed.  Maleficent and Stephan get one scene of meeting, then a little montage, and then a minute later they've been lovers for decades.  Maleficent's iconic crow is now a transforming human, Diaval (Sam Riley), who serves Maleficent loyally all movie without much explanation.  He is not let to have much of a personality - which is a shame since Sam Riley puts in a fantastic performance when he gets the chance - so it doesn't much matter.  Aurora's romance with her dashing prince is barely worthy of mention.  And then Aurora and Maleficent end up as best friends in a bizarre reversal of the original film's dynamic, but even this relationship, central to the entire goddamn movie, is trampled over and rushed through in order to get the plot moving.  Even though I basically understand what this movie was doing - Maleficent is a hero, the King is evil now, yadda yadda yadda - I'm completely lost when it comes to motivations and the real themes.

It does not help that one of this movie's primary focuses, special effects, are only occasionally effective.  Unfortunately like many Hollywood films, it appears the only passion in the entire project was from the effects teams.  Somebody was smart enough to crib off of Hayao Miyazaki when it came to designing the cute little fairy creatures, but nobody was smart enough to borrow his unique ability to love every one of his characters.  Screw characters, we got fantasy battle scenes to stage!  The huge tree dragon that Maleficent fights alongside is a cool idea, but only used long enough in the movie to get him into the trailer.  Of course, nobody ever decided what kind of tone "Maleficent" was going to have or even who this movie was for, thus why we have silly mud fights with CG toad people and then entire armies burning to death.  Worse are the effects that do not work at all.  The three Good Fairies are made by digitizing their actresses' faces, resulting in these hideous corpse-creatures in little dresses.  All aboard the nightmare train.  Destination:  Uncanny valley.  The most beautiful visuals ever put to the film could not save this movie already, but when the effects are failing as well, it is going to be a disaster.

God, I miss the dignity of the 1959 movie.  I really cannot stress enough how gorgeous that film was.  Compared to that, "Maleficent" is garish, just throwing every special effect out without any interest in balance or tone or coherency.  Bad art design is a symptom of a bigger problem:  they had no idea what they were trying to do, or who this movie was for.  Somebody just drew up a big freaky tree monster and without even thinking how it could make sense with the rest of the movie, it was included.  "Sleeping Beauty" had its flaws, but it also has its place in history, because it knew what kind of movie it wanted to be and it knew what sort of tone to shoot for.  Flat princess or not, that was a work of genius and art.  Then sixty years later, we get this.  Look at the fairies!  What the fuck is this?  It's horrible!

Horror movies wish they could have imagery this fucking terrifying.
What was "Maleficent" really about?  What was this movie trying to achieve?   Was this actually trying to subvert fairy tale cliches with a more feminist-friendly beat?  I think we've already covered that thoroughly with last year's "Frozen" - whose plot points "Maleficent" borrows shamelessly with far less impact.  You really cannot celebrate a female bond when the bond in question makes absolutely no sense.  Any feminist credentials "Maleficent" is trying to show off are laughably false when you realize 90% of the action in this movie is about a woman sulking because her boyfriend dumped her.  Male characters in this version are either mindlessly evil like Stephan or simply take up space without adding anything, such as the former hero of the tale, Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites).  Phillip is nothing to this movie, all of his accomplishments from the original have been removed.  I have no idea why he was in this film at all.  Then there's a long running discussion of humans vs. magic which goes nowhere, a running theme of a corrupt evil monarchy which is ignored.  I know "Snow White and the Huntsman", Universal's 2012 attempt at live action epic fairy tales, was not a revolution in filmmaking, but it at least was something.  At least it knew what kind of movie it was trying to be.

Here's my guess as to the real purpose of this movie:  all an elaborate scheme to sell gothy merchandise with Angelina Jolie's face to teenaged girls when they're at their most angsty.  It is pandering and false in all of the worst ways.  If you're going to sell toys and trash, at least let it be toys and trash from a good movie.

And here's the thing:  you could have sold Maleficent exactly as she already was.  Maleficent is already an icon, and already a perfect character despite being so static and one-dimensional.  There's charisma in a maniac witch dressing herself up in a huge cloak and gloating about holding "all the powers of Hell!"  I think every little girl at some point in her life just wants to be fabulous and have her own way, Satanic powers or not.  This new Maleficent is cut down so badly she is not even allowed to transform into a dragon - that job is given to her raven.  And it is no surprise that the only scene in this entire movie that really works is the one where Angelina Jolie acts like the purely evil Maleficent to threaten King Stephan, dominating the entire moment with huge pearly smiles and a wicked laugh.  You could see how this movie could have been retooled into a proper live action remake of "Sleeping Beauty" and how awesome Angelina Jolie could have been in that hypothetical movie.

Though not ruined, this reinvention does not work for the character.  It's not dissimilar to Rob Zombie's misguided attempts to add humanity to Michael Myers in his remake of "Halloween".  We already loved the faceless man in the hockey mask - you ruin the mystique by taking the mask off.  Just like here.  "Maleficent" markets itself as the untold story of Disney's greatest villain.  And you know, there might be a reason nobody told this story.

Hopefully though, when it comes to "Kingdom Hearts III", everybody is smart enough to ignore this movie entire and keep Maleficent the same old awful bitch she's always been.  That was the fun Maleficent.  I miss her.

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* Voice acting in a classic Disney movie was not merely speaking into a microphone in a sound studio.  Your performances were filmed and then used by the animators as reference points for the final product.  So every action a character does in the movie was performed physically by an actor, usually the person voicing them.  Eleanor Audley worked in full costume - and looked the part.

** Originally the fairies were named Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.  I'm desperate to know what the point of renaming them was, but I know I'll never get an answer.

2 comments:

  1. Great Review and everything you said was on point. This movie hurt true maleficent fans everywhere!

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  2. Maleficent had a great costume, a great voice, massive charisma, and was ... costumekidslarge.blogspot.com

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