Friday, May 30, 2014

Not Too Big to Fail: Disney’s “Maleficent”

This film is aptly named. You get a whole lot of the character Maleficent in the film of the same name. Directed by near-legendary special effects man but first-time director Robert Stromberg, we meet the title character as a charming, giggly winged forest fairy-child. Maleficent has got a pair of curly horns, a rather literal interpretation of what I figured for an elaborate hat on the animated Maleficent in the 1959 classic, Sleeping Beauty. Young Maleficent meets a human boy in the forest who just happens to be named Stefan and a friendship forms. For fans of the original animated tale, that’s a touchstone we can appreciate. We’re off to the races.

Jolie as Maleficent visits the baby
princess Aurora
But therein also lies the problem. Maleficent is a re-telling of a Disney film that was itself a reinterpretation of a story first told by Charles Perrault and then by the Brothers Grimm. In Maleficent, the Disney-fied tale is deconstructed and put back together into a largely unrecognizable narrative. If it wasn’t for the horns/headdress, I’d hardly recognize Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie plays the grown-up Maleficent. Heard of her, have you? Her cheekbones are enhanced here to the degree that the makeup effect merited its own article in The New York Times. What you may or may not know about Jolie is that she is a master of controlling her own image in the media. She fiercely shields herself from paparazzi, but travels (virtually everywhere) with her own professional photographers. She then chooses images and offers them to the press—for a price. Didn’t you ever notice that Jolie always looks fabulous in informal shots? That’s why. Now, the greater point I make is that if you stopped the film Maleficent at any point, you would find that Jolie always looks fabulous. I don’t think there’s a frame of the film where she isn’t absolutely stunning. The problem is that makes her character awfully one-dimensional. I get it. She’s gorgeous. But doesn’t Maleficent have any other colors? Doesn’t she ever slouch a bit in her complicated life? Pull an unattractive face? Look vulnerable? Not according to Robert Stromberg, she doesn’t. And that makes her ultimately uninteresting.

Elle Fanning as Aurora
The further problem arises when no other character is developed as well as Maleficent; not even the adorable Princess Aurora, played here by Elle Fanning. Fanning does a fine job with what she’s given, but she frankly doesn’t fill enough screen time for anyone to truly come to care for her; likewise Prince Philip; likewise the three good fairies, here reinterpreted as incompetent, mercurial fools. For die-hard fans, that’s the unkindest cut of all. Not to mention that the three good fairies are created by digitally grafting the heads of actresses Leslie Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple onto itty-bitty flitty fairy bodies in what’s ultimately a fairly creepy effect. Less creepy is Sam Riley as sidekick Diaval who starts as a crow saved from a savage beating by Maleficent (Isn’t she swell to everyone?). Maleficent turns the crow into a young man (then into other creatures) and Diaval acts as her conscience as well as her servant.

Copley as King Stefan
South African actor Sharlto Copley plays the grownup Stefan who allows his ambition to overshadow his love for Maleficent. They’ve been sweet on each other since they were kids. Maleficent reveals to peasant boy Stefan that iron is her weakness: it burns her like fire. Don’t you just know that this vulnerability will be used against her later? As adults, Maleficent is the protector of the forest while Stefan rarely visits anymore as his ambition leads him to the court of King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). The king is determined to do battle with the creatures of the enchanted moors for reasons that are not made clear. Maleficent leads the fairies and fearsome tree spirits into a battle that all but routs Henry and his men. On his deathbed, Henry promises that whomever vanquishes Maleficent will be named his successor; and a light goes on above Stefan’s head.

Sam Riley as the shape-shifting crow
Stefan crawls to Maleficent and convinces her to take him back, only to drug her then cut off her wings. He takes the wings to Henry as Maleficent awakens, betrayed, the ultimate woman scorned. Crow Diaval acts as her wings, spying on now King Stefan and his new life (and wife, though she gets little screen time; what are the chances?). Diaval brings the news of a new baby and Maleficent arrives at the christening in a scene that seems to do homage to the original film. Maleficent’s updated motivation for cursing the child is her own broken heart. When the baby is taken away to “safety” by the three good fairies (here called Flittle, Knotgrass, and Thistletwit) the baby is immediately endangered owing to their incompetence. Maleficent—watching from a distance—immediately shows pity on the child and secretly intervenes, feeding the child, then watching over her carefully over the years. So much for an evil Maleficent. She even tries to reverse the curse she put on the girl!

The background art seems to
pay homage to the original
animated film
King Stefan grows in the opposite direction, becoming more paranoid and bitter as the years go by. When Aurora arrives at his palace two days before her sixteenth birthday, Stefan is furious with her and orders her locked away until her birthday passes. Nice to see you, too, dad. Ultimately, the story borrows its climax from the movie Frozen, but since that’s owned by Disney as well, I suppose it can’t be considered stealing. Ultimately, it’s sisters before misters as Maleficent gets to save everyone from everything (except boredom). It’s no great thrill to see Aurora saved if we were never really given a chance to care for her in the first place. Prince Philip hardly matters here and occupies about forty-five seconds of total screen time. This feels like an odd vanity project for Jolie. On the one hand, I can appreciate the feminist twist given to this reinterpretation; but on the other hand, one-dimensional filmmaking is still one-dimensional, with all its 3D bravado and effects.

I’m figuring Maleficent as fare for the die-hard Disney fan, especially those who love Sleeping Beauty so much that any iteration is worth exploring. You want it? It’s yours. At 97 minutes, Maleficent seemed long. It nearly put its own sleeping spell on me. Some violent battle scenes put the 13 in its PG13 rating. Better luck next time, all.

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