Sunday, October 5, 2014

A "Maleficent" Mess

I'm of two minds about "Maleficent," a revisionist telling of the Disney's 1959 animated "Sleeping Beauty" feature that first introduced the horned villain. On the one hand, the live action version of Maleficent portrayed by Angelina Jolie is an intriguing character and she is given some interesting things to do. When you compare "Maleficent" to other effects-heavy fantasy spectaculars that Disney has been making recently, like "Oz the Great and Powerful" and "Alice in Wonderland," "Maleficent" easily tops them. Jolie is perfectly cast, gives a performance of exactly the right size and tone, and she carries the film easily. First time director Robert Stromberg's background is in effects work, and he does a perfectly fine job wrangling the CGI and giving Jolie the space she needs. The script, though entirely too family-friendly for my tastes, delivers some good messages for young girls and nicely subverts expectations on a few fronts.

On the other hand, as a fan of the animated Maleficent, I'm very disappointed at what Disney has done to one of their most iconic villains.

"Maleficent" follows the "Wicked" model, taking an evil character that gave many young children nightmares, and completely turning the narrative on its head so that we see the whole story from their POV, with events significantly altered to help make the villain into a sympathetic heroine. In the case of "Maleficent," we learn that the evil fairy was originally a good, protective sprite who was terribly betrayed in her youth by a young man who would eventually become King Stefan (Sharlto Copely), the father of Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), the Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent's story is one of trauma, revenge, and ultimately redemption, with hardly anything in it resembling the original "Sleeping Beauty." They only truly share one scene in common, where Maleficent arrives uninvited to the christening and curses baby Aurora. The live action version is a great recreation of the animated one, and a highlight of the film. It's a shame that little else in "Maleficent" matches up to it, as the cursing is now positioned as Maleficent's low point, when she does a terrible thing she will eventually regret. The fun of the original character was her showy theatricality and her intimidating presence, both of which are largely absent in this version. The Jolie Maleficent is charismatic and cinematic, but doesn't have anywhere near the same panache.

What really undercuts the film, though, is the weakness of nearly everyone that Maleficent interacts with. "Wicked" not only reinvented the Wicked Witch, but Glinda the Good, the Scarecrow, and many others. "Maleficent" does a decent job with its title character, but stumbles with King Stefan, who had the potential to be a much more interesting antagonist. Part of the problem is Sharlto Copley, who seems to get less effective with each film he appears in. Here, he goes from scummy to paranoid and that's about it. Then there are the three good fairies, played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville. You could make an argument that they were the real protagonists in the animated film, being the most active characters. In the live-action film they're charmless comic-relief idiots, and a real disappointment. Maleficent's raven, renamed Diaval and occasionally wearing a human form played by Sam Riley, gets a slightly expanded role. He's pleasant enough, but the movie doesn't do enough with him. That leaves Aurora as the only other character in the film who is successfully reinterpreted from the original, and she's easily the least changed of all. Elle Fanning manages to do a lot with very, very little.

Disney has gotten a lot of mileage out of revisionist versions of their old animated classics in recent years, and "Maleficent" is far from the most egregious case of one of their old classics getting reworked to the point where they barely resemble the original. The "Once Upon a Time" television series is full of examples. This one grates more heavily, though, because the potential for something more thoughtful and more powerful was there. Jolie and Fanning are excellent, the film's production values are fantastic, and Linda Woolverton's script hints at more thoughtful directions that the story could have gone in. There's so much more material from "Sleeping Beauty" that was completely ignored too - what became of Maleficent's terrifying mountain stronghold or her army of monsters? What happened to "all the powers of Hell?"

As family viewing fodder, this works fine. As CGI spectacle, it's less successful. There are some nice effects, like a sleeping Aurora looking like she's floating underwater while being transported through the woods by Maleficent's magic, but there are too many instances of crummy, clashing visual styles - it doesn't remotely match up to Eyvind Earle's production design on "Sleeping Beauty." And as a revisionist fairy tale, "Maleficent" just isn't as daring or as subversive as it needs to be to really make an impact. It's a little better than what Disney's been producing for this audience lately, but still not nearly as good as what they deserve.

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