31 May 2014

Maleficent Fails in an Unusual Way

Maleficent (2014)
Directed by Robert Stromberg. Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Ella Purnell.

Sometimes, we need the fictional villains in our life to just stay evil. Forget sympathy for the Devil: I don’t want sympathy for the Red Skull, the T-1000, Michael Myers, the Joker, Auric Goldfinger, the Dark Lord Sauron, or King Ghidorah.

I especially don’t want sympathy for the Mistress of All Evil, Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. So few movie characters so relish evil for evil’s sake like she does. And Maleficent executes this vileness with such stylish vigor!

Maleficent is the unofficial ruler of Disney’s dark parallel to their Princess line, the Disney Villains. And hoo-boy, does Maleficent do a great job at the top of the wicked food chain. This is a creature so evil that getting a birthday party snub hurls her into a generational revenge plot that consumes a kingdom and all her free time. Her design (courtesy of legendary Disney artist Marc Davis) and voice (Eleanor Audley) emphasize the beautiful allure of evil to make the Middle Ages proud. As bonuses, she has a crafty raven sidekick and can transform through a mushroom cloud explosion into a black and purple dragon that blasts green flames. Give the dark lady a hand!

So what worse way to foul up Maleficent than to try to explain in a feature length film how she got so evil?

Amazingly, Disney found a worse way.

Based on the trailers, I anticipated the new live-action Maleficent was going to make the same mistake as Rob Zombie’s maligned Halloween remake and provide too much backstory for character who needs none. Although Maleficent does err in this direction, the comparison doesn’t truly fit. Instead, imagine a Batman film where the Joker becomes Batman’s closest ally, tries to help the hero overcome the grief of his parents’ death, and then aids Batman against a psychotic Jim Gordon who wants to viciously gun down Gotham’s protector. And by the way, Jim Gordon is the one who killed Batman’s parents all those years ago.

Wait, scratch that. It sounds too interesting. I can’t say that about Maleficent’s script-flip.

In this iteration, Maleficent is not an anti-hero, nor a tragic villain, nor anything else so nuanced or challenging. For the second half of the running time, Maleficent is the no-excuses hero. This is what actually occurs in the movie. It’s utterly bizarre that Disney would do something so drastic and undermining to one of their most beloved properties. Another studio exploring this reverse-villain concept à la Wicked (without a trademarked character like Maleficent) is understandable. This feels like Disney trying to kill their own IP.

Maleficent cannot avoid comparisons to the 1959 animated film, and that’s not a position in which any film should place itself. Sleeping Beauty isn’t the finest movie from Disney Animation Studios—it has a few dull stretches, and Aurora is the least of the princesses in the canon—but it’s no doubt the studio’s most gorgeous movie. I would place it on a short list for most beautiful movie of all time along with entries like Barry Lyndon and Days of Heaven. The tsunami of indelible imagery in Sleeping Beauty drowns its flaws. The opening few minutes alone appear like a Medieval tapestry come to multi-planar life, and there’s yet to be a movie shot in 3D that can match the dimensional effect achieved through this 2D hand animation. I could fill up three posts just gushing about how wonderful Sleeping Beauty looks, going almost frame-by-frame.

Poor Maleficent looks dreary and cluttered beside its inspiration. Like so many recent live-action fantasy movies, the art direction team went over the top trying to create a fairy-tale world and instead crafted a massive junk-heap that is tiresome to look at. The numerous cartoonish beasties that live in Maleficent’s moorlands look fit for a computer animated film (How to Train Your Dragon popped to mind more than once) and do not fit into the movie’s general design. And the three good fairies are ghastly in their winged form: disturbing bobble-heads that are either funny or nightmare fuel depending on your state of mind. The three characters are aggravating in their human shapes, but at least they look better than these CGI monstrosities.

But all these problems are trivial compared to the obstacle the film created for itself when it set out to reinterpret an established character by changing what everyone liked about her.

Maleficent’s new backstory, a frolicking winged fairy (played by Ella Purnell) who falls for the human prince Stefan, only to later lose her wings when the older Stefan (Sharlto Copley) needs to prove himself to his father, isn’t all that rotten. The movie has some kick to it during these first twenty minutes, and even if the progression of Maleficent from gentle to aggressive occurs with jarring abruptness—it seems like a few key scenes were cut—there is at least the sensation of an intriguing alternate history developing. This new origin could have made the start of the evil and beautiful villain we all love.

Then the movie plunges into the actual story of Sleeping Beauty and starts down the road of making Maleficent into Princess Aurora’s protecting fairy godmother and a fantasy action hero. The result is Maleficent becomes dreadfully… boring. Once her villainy vanishes, there is a sad and drab ordinariness to the character. Maleficent makes a poor heroine; she simply doesn’t have the necessary qualities, and wasn’t designed for the role. This is like expecting a relief pitcher to hit homeruns: that’s not the position’s job.

The film teases a scattering of good ideas after expending itself in the opening. Maleficent starts to watch over Aurora because the three good fairies are too incompetent to handle caring for a human child. Since Maleficent’s curse cannot take effect if the child dies before her sixteenth birthday, the dark fairy has to protect Aurora from afar with the help of the raven Diaval (who can turn into Sam Riley, a decision that isn’t as awful as it sounds). Although this story change removes a basic suspense element of the original, which is that Maleficent doesn’t know where the fairies have hidden Aurora, it makes sense for a villain who likes to work the long game. The Mistress of All Evil would want to make sure her full plan plays out, or else why come up with such a strange curse to begin with?

The film’s one strength that improves on the animated original also comes out during this stretch of the film: Elle Fanning as Aurora. The original animated Aurora is a cypher and a weak character whose lack of screen time feels done on purpose. Fanning, an actress with great charm and a wonderful career ahead of her, gives Aurora the necessary spark to feel worth the Disney Princess line. She also has great chemistry with Angelina Jolie, and the early prickly relationship Maleficent has with the young girl contains the best work from both actresses. Yes, there was something interesting happening here.

But these are a few moments in a drab and dull tale with a main character who is fundamentally wrong. None of the fantasy action that crops up to keep the story physically moving helps at all. The movie can’t even pull off a remotely exciting dragon at the finale. You’ve seen this all before and done far better. Even Snow White and the Huntsman executed this in a more interesting way—although Elle Fanning could wipe out Kristen Stewart in the charisma department any day of the week.

A strong director might have pushed Maleficent past the mistakes of its concept, but first-time director Robert Stromberg, a VFX designer who worked on Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, was apparently hired to bring no vision to the film at all and step out of the way of the Disney executive machine. Fanning and Jolie function fine as performers without directorial input, but the rest of the film suffers from the lack of a strong hand on the rudder.

Angelina Jolie was the best choice for the title role, and the boring characterization isn’t her fault. She cannot surpass the Marc Davis/Eleanor Audley original, nor does the film give her the chance to do so the way that Elle Fanning is allowed to better her animated counterpart, but Jolie is definitely giving the role her all. She’s as good a live-action Maleficent as could have been crafted, and once more the film that could have been peeks through the pixelated dreariness.

Despite the company’s efforts, Disney won’t succeed in damaging the Maleficent IP. The new movie will make money, but come October, when the Mouse House re-releases Sleeping Beauty to Blu-ray, Maleficent will likely change into an embarrassing memory. This is a short gain for Disney in terms of profit, and I hope the studio realizes its error, pick up the cash, and then lets Maleficent live on as the Evil we Need.