Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Review: Maleficent

Let’s talk about Disney Princess for a second.

One of Disney’s bigger money making operations Disney Princess is a multimedia merchandise platform featuring various female characters (not all of them princesses) from their feature length animated films aimed at young girls and pretty much no one else, much like action figures based on action cartoons are aimed at young boys and no one else. There are a lot of questions about the anti-feminist nature of this franchise and honestly that’s too important a subject for me to write extensively about in an intro like this but I think that while their depiction of women and defined gender roles can be troubling there are certainly examples of good female role models in place, such as Mulan who I always thought was a badass. However the further back in time you go the less legs you have to stand on as the classic depiction of Princess in Disney’s catalog are clearly sexist and clearly represented Walt Disney’s idea of patriarchal system. If the main character of your film is a woman who is basically waiting an hour and a half for a dude to come rescue, and then marry her, then your movie sucks, plain and simple.

This brings us to Sleeping Beauty, possibly the most obvious film to fail in this regard. Based on at least two fairy tales we all basically know the premise of this story; Princess Aurora gets got by an evil fairy and falls into a coma until the man of her dreams waltzes into town and sexually assaults kisses her while she’s under, magically freeing her from her curse. Aurora is such a prop in her own movie that she has less than twenty minutes of screen time. She’s such a non-character that I suspect the average person wouldn’t even know her name aside from being called “Sleeping Beauty”. Now the flip side of this is despite the uninteresting lump of uselessness that was Aurora this film also introduced us to one of the coolest Disney villains ever conceived: Maleficent.

Now Maleficent isn’t exactly a great character either, as her major motivation stems mostly from “because I’m evil, stupid” but her design, power set, scope and even her name are all make for an very memorable villain. She routinely places high in Top Disney Villains lists all over the internet and continues to be used as an antagonist in various Disney projects, probably most famously in the video game series Kingdom Hearts. With this in mind it shouldn’t be too surprising that Disney is making a film featuring Maleficent as a protagonist, epically when we consider the incredibly successful musical Wicked which similarly took the villain of a classic story and flipped her role. This film also follows in the footsteps of recent flicks Snow White and the Huntsman (which in retrospect I probably scored too high) and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (which I fully plan on never watching again), modern reinterpretations of classic children’s stories/fairy tales aimed at wider audience and not simply little kids. In some case they’re darker in tone and in most cases they are far more complex. With first time director Robert Stromberg at the helm where does Maleficent stand in this relatively new genre?

Full review after the jump.

[WARNING: This review contains some spoilers , so if you were aching to see what boils down to be a kids movie you better proceed with caution]


You can tell the fire is evil because it's green
Once upon a time there where two neighboring kingdoms at odds with each other; the human kingdom and the Moors, a mystical forest populated by fantastical creatures. Despite the tension between the two lands a fairy girl named Maleficent and a human boy name Stefan met, became friends, and fell in love. They drifted apart as adults when Stefan (Sharlto Copley) tried to rise in the ranks of the kingdom and Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) became guardian of the Moors which draws the hatred of the current king. Stefan soon betrays his fairy lover to the king in exchange to succeed him as ruler. Brokenhearted and enraged Maleficent eventually arrives at the palace the day of Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora’s christening and cures her. On the girl’s sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on spindle from a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep from which only “love’s true kiss” can awaken her from.

A film like this relies heavily on the star and Angelina Jolie manages to perform admirably. In most of the time I find her to be kind of hit or miss, usually more due to the movie rather than her I suppose, so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. She’s does well though and she’s probably the best part of the film. Actually the best part of this movie is certainly her character. You can make a very solid argument for Sleeping Beauty being pretty sexist/anti-feminist but Maleficent is a cool female lead. While she was naïve in her younger days overall she was pretty badass. Sharlto Copley is pretty solid too. That Copley is a weird cat; as far as I know the guy wasn’t a professional actor until he starred in his friend’s Neill Blomkamp surprise hit film District 9 and then subsequently was nominated for an Oscar. Seriously? Since then he has showed a wide range of characters in various film, including this one which is way different than anything I’ve ever seen him do. I’m not sure why or how but Copley is one of the best character actors in Hollywood.

Anyone else find that beard distracting?
The plot is not the strongest one I’ve ever come across. It’s fine but it’s nothing special. It’s also nothing particularly crazy. Sometime filmmakers try to overly complicate films based on fairy tales which is not the case here; it’s basically just an expansion of the Sleeping Beauty story and since that story ain’t exactly a doorstopper that’s not saying too much. It’s inoffensive which is good enough for a summer flick. I think I could have used more details as to why there was tension between the two kingdoms aside from “the King is a greedy asshole” but that’s not the worst thing about this film. There are some holes in the logic, like why the three “good” fairies try to broker pace with the humans and defy the will of their queen, but it didn’t kill the movie for me. It’s fine, it’s okay, it’s basically a by the numbers flick that you would probably not remember two years from now. I will say that I liked that the movie attempts do something different with the normal tropes in a film like. It’s similar to Frozen in that regard but not as successful. At least Disney is clearly trying to do something different these days.

Well that would be true if it wasn’t for the films one outstanding flaw and, surprise, it’s Princess Aurora. All the issues with the character from back in the day ARE STILL A PROBLEM FOR HER IN 2014! SOMEHOW!! Aurora is not a character, she is a prop and her contribution to the plot reflects this. She is at best two-dimensional (maybe if you squint) and easily the least interesting of the main characters by far. Weirdly if Maleficent had been a guy and Aurora was his love interest this would have been one of the most blatantly sexist movies I’d seen all year. Elle Fanning’s uneventful performance doesn’t help anything. But this movies isn’t really about her, it’s about Maleficent so in theory it could get away with this. Of course that fails when we get to the major plot point where Maleficent and Aurora become close which results in the “evil” fairy coming to deeply regret her earlier actions. Unfortunately, as with everything involving Aurora in this film, that plot point is sorely underdeveloped as the two barely interact before Maleficent goes all "fairy godmother" on the princess. It feels like the flick is missing twenty minutes where all the scenes with Aurora winning over Maleficent were supposed to happen. I wonder if this conversation took place:

Disney: So we saw the rough cut of the film

Filmmakers: Did you like it?

Disney: Mostly. But we feel you gave Aurora character development and that’s a problem.

Filmmakers: You mean we gave her too much-

Disney: Not just “too much”. “Any”. You gave her any character development at all and we’re going to need you to cut all that shit out. She’s a Disney Princess, not a person.

Filmmakers: Um, but without it the whole plot point where Maleficent changes her mind about the curse doesn’t make sense.

Disney: Who cares? This is a kids’ film. Just put some pretty CGI on there and no one will notice!

By the way the CGI wasn’t all that great either so even that wouldn’t have worked out.

Maleficent and some blonde chick?
I wanna say her name is...Cameron?
Anyway at the end of the day this movie is a middle of the road flick that isn’t bad but is also not good. There are some interesting elements and tropes turned upside down but ultimately with its ho-hum plot and complete black hole where Princess Aurora’s personality was supposed to be really hurt this film being any more than a summer distraction. Now whether it’s a pleasant one or an annoying one will almost certainly depend on the viewer.

I give Maleficent 3 out of 5 Adorable Pandas.


Pros 

-Strong female lead

-Pretty good performances from the two leads

-Tries to do something different with standard tropes

Cons 

-Princess Aurora has no character which is ridiculous

-Suffers from weak plot

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