Skip to main content

What have you done to my beautiful self?

Maleficent
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Probably the most charitable thing one can say about Maleficent is that it’s inoffensive. Except to Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent that is, who would likely take great exception to being thoroughly debased as a sentimentalist with a warmest of hearts beneath the cruelty and darkness. Whatever next, a cuddly Shere Khan? It might be its bland innocuousness that explains Maleficent’s unlikely success (it’s 2014’s third most popular movie worldwide), that and an evident (hitherto untapped) appetite for female-led fantasy movies. Parents probably didn’t mind taking their kids to a picture that wasn’t especially scary, didn’t last all that long, and had an easily graspable moral wedged in there (and, “It’s a love story between a mother and daughter”). But looking for reasons for its success can’t explain away that this is another empty big budget fantasy among a glut of late. There isn’t an ounce of filmmaking verve or passion, not a jot of storytelling drive, not a mote of genuine drama or conflict, or even any decent comic relief (a Disney failsafe).  The case for the defence? The cinematography is quite nice (if generic) and Angelina Jolie at least looks the part.


Ah yes, the look. I was surprised to hear that Maleficent was in development prior to Jolie’s involvement. Throughout (what seems like) a long period of development hell the one thing that seemed evident more than anything else was this was a classic example of wrong-footed reverse engineering. Some suits saw Jolie’s perfect bone structure, connected it to the Sleeping Beauty villainess, and bingo, there’s a movie. It didn’t matter that there was no story, less still that the character was evil. Maleficent looks cool. So the only option, once you wade into the pool of basing movie-making decisions on iconography alone, is that she becomes a good gal wronged. There’s the lesson to anyone hoping to see a Boba Fett movie. Even when there is back-story, delving into it tends to be doomed to failure. Didn’t anyone see what happened when they tried to explain Darth Vader?


That’s not to say there aren’t strong themes or isn't memorable imagery in the picture, but they fall flat where they aren’t relying on Sleeping Beauty itself. The evil Maleficent is basically sandwich filler, the wherefores and whys usurping what Jolie rightly references as a “deliciously evil” character. If she likes the character that much, she surely wouldn’t have become interested in “What on Earth happened to her that she would be so angry that she would curse an innocent?” 


The clear-cut fairy tale transforms into a rocky yarn about a winged faerie living in an idyllic realm who is cruelly violated by her former human beau, gets thunderous and moody for a bit (but not really all that), and then makes up with everyone. It’s ironic that Jolie wanted to retain the crucial curse dialogue from the 1959 film when its tangent is oppositional to the current telling. After all, therein Maleficent dies when a man (a dashing prince) pierces her heart with his mighty sword (if you’re looking for sexual metaphors).


Here Sharlto Copley makes for a one-note King Stefan (like his District 9 director, he becomes less impressive the more exposure he gets), served with utterly incoherent motivation. Suffice to say he becomes a materialist and the childhood attraction he felt towards Maleficent fizzles. We know this because the narration (Janet McTeer doing a commanding job; she almost makes it feel classical and worthwhile at times, but only almost) keeps stopping us to fill in the gaps. I almost have a grudging admiration for the how overtly the picture relies on telling rather than showing, and how utterly reliant it is on McTeer’s older Aurora to make sense of the story.


 So, to impress his father (to prove he is a man), he cuts off Maleficent’s wings and so inspires her turn to darkness. Metaphorically, as a number of critics have noted, Stefan rapes Maleficent. However, I'm not overly persuaded by arguments for the picture's merits on the basis on of one scene's subtext. Not when the rest of the movie is so lacking. Later, Maleficent's lost wings miraculously reattachment themselves without so much as a roll of double sided sticky tape. If we're looking for unvarnished metaphors, the humans live in a Tolkien-Mordor-esque industrialised and despoiled world, and a patriarchal one to boot, whereas the bounteous land of the Moor is presided over by feminine energy.


Short of getting Neil Jordan in to pep this up thematically and content-wise, I doubt anything could have saved Maleficent. Yet the picture clearly connected with families on some level. I mean to say, I couldn’t even accuse it of being overtly maudlin or sentimental. Jolie occasionally gets behind the menace of her character, and her cut glass English accent matches her cheekbones, but even as she gets behind her character’s regret for her deeds she laudably resists amping up the sympathy. Elle Fanning is irritatingly chirpy throughout as Aurora. She just can’t quit with that nauseating smiling, which may mean she’s playing for wholesomeness or it may mean her character is a metaphor for over-prescription of mood altering pharmaceuticals to teenagers.


The comic relief of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple as feckless fairies falls flat, and their character design, big heads on small bodies, borrows some of the least attractive design characteristics of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Sam Riley is solid as the well-meaning crow-come-human Diaval. The moment where Maleficent first transforms him, and he swells from bird to man beneath a hunter’s net, is one of the very few moments in the picture that is creepy, imaginative and unsettling; the way a good fairy tale should be (metamorphoses into different creatures - including a dragon - ought to be thrilling, but they're disappointingly flat)


Dean Semler’s cinematography is fine, but this is yet another CGI world of shiny pixels and no substance (like Alice, like Oz). Debut director Robert Stromberg may have made an impression as production designer on Avatar, Alice and Oz, but he has been imbued with none of the craft and energy of those filmmakers. Maleficent maintains a deathly torpor. It has no zest (the laughs aren’t funny) and no excitement (more pixels attacking each other). Stromberg likes his widescreen, but he doesn’t inhabit it; we’re treated to little more than a series of vistas between McTeer informing us what happens next. As for James Newton Howard’s score, it’s forgettable when it isn’t insisting on a sub-Danny Elfman choral ethereality. Rick Baker’s make up for Jolie is fine, but just about everything else is familiar and forgettable.


Linda Woolverton, who slew another great children’s story with Burton’s Alice, repeats the trick here. Hollywood seems to like her though, so she’s sequelising Alice next. Just what was required. Apparently she went through 15 drafts of the Maleficent script, so God knows how bad it was initially. The only memorable dialogue comes from the original Disney animation; how undernourished is a screenplay when the protagonist/antagonist warns, “It’s over” to the villain, straight out of a contemporary action movie? 


The occasional reversal works; for example, having true love’s kiss come from Aurora’s surrogate mother rather than Brendan Thwaites’ sub-boy band prince. But the emotional beats are undeveloped so none of them play; why Stefan is such a bastard, why Maleficent develops affection for Aurora, why Aurora develops affection for Maleficent. It is so because McTeer tells us it is so.


If Maleficent comes across as a truncated and diced-up affair, that may be because it is. Hence the narration. Yet there’s little sense that we’ve lost vital parts of the story, as nothing therein feels vital. Miranda Richardson and Peter Capaldi were excised as the fairy queen and king of the Moors, which on the one hand is a shame as the picture desperately needed some good meaty thesping. On the other it would have extended a lifeless picture’s running time further.


It isn’t difficult to see why Brad Bird, Tim Burton and David Yates all passed on the project. There’s no meat on Maleficent’s bones, no emotional pulse and absolutely nothing that is deliciously cruel. What we have is the latest in a line of sub-par fairy and fantasy retellings, Last year’s Oz and Jack the Giant Slayer were as inert as this is, but didn’t do nearly as well (Jolie at least has presence; the leads in those two were nigh on inconspicuous). Snow White and the Hunstman was as misconceived as Maleficent, but at least benefited from some strong supporting actors and a first time director who, unlike here, came across as if he had something to prove. The worst aspect of Maleficent is that its success rivals Alice in Wonderland in the “That’ll do” stakes. Someone really needs to try harder, but the only place where this is happening is in animated features. At least Disney fairy tales can still be trusted in their natural habitat.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.