Sunday, June 1, 2014

Maleficent (**)

Directed by Robert Stromberg


If classic Disney fans were as rabid as comic book fans, I think there may be some flames and pitchforks coming after the revisionist history within Maleficent. The character, so popular as the antagonist from 1959's Sleeping Beauty, is truly one of the most terrifying movie villains that I have ever seen. As a child, Sleeping Beauty was always my favorite of the classical Disney tales, but not because of its heroes or Aurora, it's wistful main character. It's darkness, filled with so many haunting, creepy shots of doomed hyponisis, was so different from anything else, no doubt influenced by the angular set design of German Expressionism Cinema of the 20's. Even Snow White's evil queen seemed like no match compared to the seemingly endless evil powers that Maleficent kept at her disposal to rid herself of the unknowing princess. It's a brave transformation that this 2014 film makes, to disregard the pure evil of that original character and make her the protagonist here. To give us a narrator who insists that we've always had the story all wrong. Maleficent is much closer to a torn down origin story than it is a rehashing of old material. This new product has quite a few ups and downs.

The film is directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning art director and a celebrated effects artist. The screenplay is credited to Linda Woolverton, who has Disney credits going back to Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Maleficent is said to take bits and pieces from three different iterations of the Sleeping Beauty tale, including the original by French writer Charles Perrault, the English version by the Brothers Grimm, and the 1959 Disney film. The mashup is more than sloppy. It sits as part of a noble trend sprouting within Hollywood swaying against the usual misogyny that takes up such an important role within these movies, but it feels over-the-top and defensive. Frozen accomplished a lot more with similar ideas and didn't feel the need to teach you a lesson. So when Maleficent decides to revise the story, it has it changes and what's left? It's tone is muddled, pining for laughs at times when just moments earlier a foreboding James Newton Howard score was crying for solemnity. It's visual spectacle is a charred and unkempt. Much like the contemporary Tim Burton films that he's designed, Stromberg's odes to German Expressionism are still there, but the result is less entrancing and ugly. There's always this feeling like the film is trying to convince you that it's a monster movie.

Luckily for Maleficent and its producers, they won the lottery when they were able to cast Angelina Jolie. the movies hadn't seen her since 2010's The Tourist and while that film didn't exactly win her any new fans, it was obvious from the first Maleficent trailer that we had been missing her. She's such a powerful presence on the screen, and this extends beyond her apparent sensuality. It's obvious that she's game to play a part in a film that's trying to transform the bitchy evil queen into a benevolent mother of the very person she's famous for destroying. She seems to understand the responsibility that comes with tacking that kind of transformation, and performs the part as if she's just the one to do it. Even the film's attempts at humor only work when she's the one attempting it. If only Stromberg understood this concept as well as Jolie obviously did, and if only the film wasn't obligated to be, in it's own right, the standard hero's journey - as if it were written by Joseph Campbell himself. This is not the story of how the evil queen learns to love, it's about how the well-meaning fairy gets to tell her side of the story. In the history of fables, women are often portrayed as gruesome, insecure soul-suckers and Maleficent hopes to bring an end to that - or at least give it the finger. The only one who succeeds at this is Jolie.

The film opens on a prologue where we see Maleficent as a young girl, living in the Moors, a fantastical land outside of the human kingdom where magical creatures live peacefully together. The humans, always growing more and more greedy, live in a perpetual war with the creatures of the Moors to expand their land. Maleficent lives happily in a tree, supplied with two ram-like horns and a pair of wings that are bigger than her whole body. When she meets a young boy named Stefan, they become friends, and he tells her of his dreams to one day rule the kingdom. Maleficent doesn't understand human greed, but she's still taken with Stefan and his ambition. When they become adults, their relationship becomes strained as Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) gets closer and closer to throne. The King wishes desperately to conquer the Moors, but failed to do so and now he has become deathly ill. He asks for his men to kill the winged enforcer of the Moors, and more so, to bring along proof. The first soldier to do so will become the descendent to the throne. Stefan, in an attempt to win the kingdom but also save his friend from slaughter, steals Maleficent's precious wings.

Around this moment is when the tale begins looking more familiar. Stefan and his queen have a baby daughter named Aurora, and when they decide to have a large celebratory christening, inviting everyone within the kingdom except Maleficent, she shows up anyway and places a curse on the child: on her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on the needle of a sewing wheel and fall into a death-like sleep until awoken by true love's kiss. To protect their infant daughter, the king and queen send her off to live with three fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple) who disguise themselves as peasant women and raise Aurora in a cottage in the woods until the day after her sixteenth birthday, hopefully avoiding the spell. As young Aurora grows older and older, Maleficent stays nearby, always watching closely and playing pranks on the three fairies every once in a while for good measure. She is accompanied by Diaval (Sam Riley) a young man who was once a captured crow until being saved and turned human by Maleficent. In gratitude, Diaval is Maleficent's servant turning into whichever creature Maleficent may need in a pinch.

Teenaged Aurora is played by Elle Fanning, a young actress who is beginning to develop a screen presence even bigger than her famous older sister's. Fanning plays Aurora with a youthful admiration of life. Gone is the wise-beyond-her-years modesty that usually comes with most Disney princesses, and here is a young girl who's more than happy to run through fields for the rest of her life. When Aurora confronts Maleficent in the woods, she asks her not to be afraid and to come out from behind the trees. "But then you will be afraid," Maleficent warns. We can tell just from that line that this is not the same spirit from Sleeping Beauty. The relationship between Maleficent and Aurora in this film goes in some directions that you would not expect it to. Like Frozen, Maleficent is much more interested in female relationships, and could do without the entire concept of needing a man's love and protection to survive. The idea that Disney movies are doing their best to tell little girls that they "don't need no man" is probably better than the decades of systematic brainwashing that men are literally the only saving grace from your evil stepmother. Fanning and Jolie have a chemistry in their few scenes together, kind of like an inverted Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.

Maleficent is a mess and has very little to grasp to other than its own revisions. Even it's feminist plot points feel like reheated leftovers after watching Frozen. But one thing Frozen doesn't have is the kind of movie star power of Angelina Jolie. She's working like hell here, but making it look so effortless. Her cries over the loss of her wings early in the film is nothing if not a totally tragic moment earned by Jolie's moans. Jolie has starred in big-budget studio films before, but it feels like this is the first time she's doing so without shooting guns while simultaneously flying through the air. She's still a badass here, but her heart is tender. She's threatening but she's never a killer - death curse aside, of course. I spent a lot of time wishing that Jolie's work here was in a much better movie. They obviously had the conceit, but none of the planning or execution. The performances from Fanning and Copley are fine, Copley in particular continues to show how much fun he can have playing the villain - there's an elasticity there, a need to play different villains in different ways, that makes him fascinating to watch. But this is Jolie's show, the resurrection of a star that I didn't even know I wanted.

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