Monday, June 9, 2014


Alternate Title:  Sleeping Audience

One sentence synopsis:    Maleficent, queen and ruler of the fae, pronounces a curse upon the daughter of her old friend King Stephan as punishment for a vile betrayal.

Things Havoc liked:  Disney's Sleeping Beauty is a better film than I think most people remember it being, and no small part of that is due to its villain, a terrifying, satanic figure of pure malice and savage power, voiced by the incomparable Elanor Audley (who also voiced Cinderella's evil stepmother). Disney in the olden days was not afraid to call down the metaphorical thunder when it came time to have bad guys be truly bad, and Maleficent remains one of their finest villainous creations, bereft of comic relief or silliness in favor of pure hate and evil. Nowadays, with revisionism in vogue for classic fantasy stories like Sleeping Beauty (or Oz), the notion of making a live action version of the tale from the perspective of one of Disney's great villains was an intriguing one, and if you're going to do something of this sort, you could do far worse than starting things off with Angelina Jolie.

I have not always been kind to Angelina throughout her career, and neither has everyone else, for her performances in films like Changeling or Alexander were godawful, and not helped by better appearances in worse films such as the Tomb Raider movies or Mark Millar's horrid insult to all comic book fans, Wanted. But whoever suggested her for the titular role this time around deserves some kind of award, because whatever her flaws, Jolie embodies Maleficent in this film from top to toe. Gaunt and angular, with built up cheekbones and ivory-pale skin, Jolie is a dead ringer for the stylized cartoon villain of half a century ago, with mannerisms that range from the disinterested to the downright vicious. Jolie's performance is the best in the film, easily embodying the incandescent fury of a woman (or a witch) scorned, alongside more subtle facets of a character who is, after all, our protagonist. Jolie's Maleficent is capable of terrible rage, but also astonishing pettiness and even dry wit, something that always goes well in a non-heroic protagonist like this one. I don't know if I'd say that this is Jolie's best performance, as I've not seen all of her work, but it's a step up from a lot of "dramatic" work she's done in the past.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, but tends towards the good side of things. Sharlto Copley, the South African actor last seen in District Nine and (*Shudder*) Elysium, plays King Stephan, father of the aforementioned Sleeping Beauty, who is driven to mad distraction, first by power lust, and then by fear of the loss of that power in general and Maleficent in specific. Thinking back on Elysium (an exercise I do not recommend), Copley was plainly one of the better elements of it, and I did enjoy his turn here as an inversion of the typical wise king, a man who makes a terrible mistake in an act of desperate greed and winds up paying for it the rest of his life. Meanwhile Sleeping Beauty herself is played by Elle Fanning, a young actress I can't say I've had much use for, but who does everything she needs to as the kind and wonderstruck (and fairly airheaded) Princess Aurora. Maleficent's recurring policy of peremptorily putting her to sleep as soon as she begins running her mouth about the beauty of the bluebirds was a nice touch. Moreover, it's nice to see a film wherein both Aurora and Prince Charming (Brenton Thwaites), a hopelessly inept but well-meaning young prince dragged rather abruptly into these matters by officious fairies, are actually cast as young as they are supposed to be. As a result, when the two lovebirds are awkward or naive or a bit thick, it comes across as the natural consequence of their ages, not irredeemable stupidity.

The world of Maleficent is a lush, well-realized one, filled with fantastical monsters and gorgeous scenery. This is standard for fantasy films these days, of course, but it is still worth noting when it comes. Glowering tree-monsters riding boar cavalry, hedge dragons, flying beasts of every description, all of them realized well and employed to some (at least) effect. This dovetails of course with Maleficent's design, which somehow makes the ludicrously satanic appearance of the character from the cartoon into something that looks at least plausible given the setting, even for a character that is not, initially at least, supposed to be evil.

Things Havoc disliked: It's difficult stuff, making a fairy tale for the big screen, especially when one is attempting to revise it for more modern sensibilities. One is reminded unavoidably of 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, a movie that starred Kristen Stewart, but whose greatest sin was lacking the courage to push the envelope to the logical conclusion for a fairy tale, modern or otherwise. These are not subtle stories, but broad, fantastical ones, and if you're going to write a story about characters with hearts so pure they can melt glaciers, or true love conquering all, or other such things, then you need to actually commit to that story, not hold back for fear of appearing schmaltzy. In a similar vein, when you are making a film about Maleficent, the closest thing Disney ever came to putting Satan on screen (Fantasia excepted), then you do just that.

I'm not saying Maleficent has to be made into a nothing but a psychotic killer. Broad canvas can still encompass nuanced characters (Lord of the Rings comes to mind). But when you are dealing with someone who has been violated and mutilated (let's call things what they are here), and whose consequent wrath is so volcanic that she unmakes reality around her through her mere presence, it does not do to have her show up in a cloud of vengeful hate and pronounce a curse so mealy-mouthed and laden with contingencies as to leave one wondering where in the world she pulled it from. We've established that Maleficent has the effective power of a Pagan God, effortlessly routing armies, conjuring dragons, and rending entire castles apart, so for her to drop the "revenge" that she does, feels like Charles Bronson confronting the men that killed his wife at gunpoint and presenting them with a parking ticket. Similarly, having pronounced her infamous curse, I cannot fathom for the life of me what would possess a character this enraged to spend the next sixteen years secretly watching over the object of the curse, even going so far as to saving it from the neglect of the three fairies deputed to look after her (a trio of women performing comic relief straight out of a three stooges routine). I understand why the plot inclines that way, for we have to make a story about how Maleficent was not evil but just misunderstood, etc... Fine. But you have to ground the character's actions in a way that makes sense, no matter how over the top they are. Maleficent is evil, or at least wrath, personified. Let her be wrathful. If your movie is worthy, the audience will follow you there.

But then I'm not sure if she is actually meant to be wrath personified or not, because the movie can't make up its damn mind as to just what Maleficent is actually capable of. In one moment she is laying armies waste, erecting impermeable barriers around entire kingdoms, and transforming her minions in any manner she wishes at the flick of a finger. The next she's barely capable of handling a retinue of armed men, and must walk into obvious ambushes for lack of any alternative. Yes, some gestures are made to cold iron as a kryptonite analogue as a weakness for fairies (something that's at least grounded in sound mythology), but even still, for someone who has been established as being capable of ripping stone buildings to pieces by accident, it stretches credulity when she suddenly has no alternative in escaping from a stone castle than walking out of it and trying not to make too much noise.

And the tragedy of it is that, bereft of the things that might serve to make this character truly memorable, Maleficent, both character and film, are reduced in the end to a fairly boring re-tread of the inverted version of Sleeping Beauty. I don't object to re-imagining Maleficent at all of course, nor to giving her a character arc and more complex motivations than "Satan", but you have to at least give us a character that we can identify something in. It is not impossible to make a character who both embodies the sheer power of the original and the more modern sensibilities of the rewrite. It is equally not impossible to make a character who is drastically different from the original in every way. But it is not possible to make a character who is all of those things at once, especially not in a movie that barely has 90 minutes to make its case. Without a strong character to anchor this fantastical biopic, the movie's action climax feels almost lethargic, which is a hell of a strike against a film whose predecessor ended with Maleficent being slain by a magical sword plunged through her heart while she was meta-morphed into a dragon on top of a jagged mountain in the middle of a lightning storm.

Final thoughts:   I can, if I squint at it, imagine a version of Maleficent that would be something truly special, for the basics are all here to make it work. Jolie is easily capable of carrying a film about the sorcerous queen of Hell, with or without more humanizing character features, Copley makes for a compelling obsessive antagonist, and the two romantic leads are actually a lot more likeable than I had anticipated them being. But the film simply cannot decide what it's trying to be, going for a PG-13 (or even R) concept with a PG rating, neutering its own premise by refusing to take it far enough to match the setting and concept. A movie actually about one of Disney's greatest villains could be a triumph on the scale of Wicked, but I fear that novice director Robert Stromberg simply lacked the courage (or the clout) to drive home the version of the film that might have brought that triumph home. And without it, all we're left with is a pedestrian fairy tale that happens to star a woman with horns.

Final Score:  5/10

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