Sunday, June 1, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

I was excited to go out and see Maleficent since it features the darling Elle Fanning as a Disney Princess (Aurora by name), even though the entire concept of the film is a re-envisioning of Sleeping Beauty with the focus not on the princess but on the evil villain Maleficent - played to great fanfare by Angelina Jolie. To prep for the new movie, I watched Disney's original Sleeping Beauty from all the way back in 1959. It suffers from the same singing-animals-and-happily-ever-after tone as your typical Disney movie (unlike, say Dragonslayer), but, the animation looks very nice, and at least as far as Disney movies go, it was pretty good. Maleficent herself makes a very brilliant and terrifying villain, culminating in a climactic scene involving her transformation into a vicious dragon.

This is all the more reason why a new take on Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent at the center of the story was such a good idea. Unfortunately, though, instead of being a chilling portrait of a villain (like, say, Maniac was), this movie goes a little too far in making the character sympathetic, such that it ultimately takes her fangs away to a large extent. It doesn't even work very well as an exploration of how somebody good could ultimately turn so cruel, because in the end, she's never actually that cruel. That's not to say that this version of Maleficent is not a good character - and truly, Angelina Jolie is fantastic in the role - but it just doesn't feel like the terrifyingly sadistic villain everybody loved to hate from the original Sleeping Beauty.

Indeed, one of the prime directives of this movie seems to be to spin a new yarn, revealing the "truth" of how things happened differently from the fairy tale everyone knows and loves, and manages to succeed pretty well on that count, in subverting some of the crucial plot details and playing with fans' expectations. For this reason, I was glad I went back and watched the original Sleeping Beauty first, to be able to appreciate these new twists, although the ultimate determination of which was the better story will be up to the individual fans. Certainly, though the trope of subverting fan's expectations - particularly in fantasy tales - seems to be beginning to verge on the cliché these days, it may not have made much sense to tell the same story that's already been told before. And as much as I have the habit of going into a story I've seen or read before, and wanting things to happen just so, I think I learned with Carrie that it can be problematic if you follow the blueprint too closely.

My main criticism of Maleficent, other than de-villainizing the titular character (and not featuring more of the princess :p), is the abundance of digital effects in use. I think that ultimately it comes down to a matter of taste - because the effects are certainly not poorly done - I just think that too much of them makes the movie look too fake. And it may be ironic to call for realism in a fantasy story, but one of my favorite fantasy movies of all time is Legend; and while it utilized many fantastic elements, even if some of them ultimately looked "costumey", it just felt more real. I fear it may be evidence of me actually losing touch with modern sensibilities, because it's obvious that elaborate digital effects are the soup du jour. I think Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings looked fantastic, but ever since then, it's gotten out of hand (and the new Hobbit movies are victims of this as much as anything else), and every fantasy movie is starting to look the same, with the same ridiculous-looking digital creatures (not the same creatures, but the same stylized look).

All that having been said, despite all of these flaws, Maleficent was not a bad movie, and I enjoyed it, to the extent that I could. For those who like the story, or fans of fairy tales or animated features in general, I still recommend the original Sleeping Beauty from 1959. And a note to Elle Fanning's agents: please, oh please, somebody cast her in the role of an elven maiden. She's got the perfect look for it. Seriously, she could replace Orlando Bloom in the next Hobbit movie, or even play his daughter. It's the perfect match of character to actress, and I will be sad if noone capitalizes on it.

P.S. Juno Temple was completely wasted in a throwaway role as the prettiest of the three bumbling fairies (who, in this version of the story, offer none of the wisdom or pathos of their previous counterparts, and serve instead purely as The-Three Stooges-like comedic release).

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