Reviewing the Films of 2014, Part V: Maleficent
Disney's Revisionist Fairy Tale
Most of us have grown up with Walt Disney Pictures' bright, colorful fairy tales. From my earliest days, no doubt, I was regaled with cheerful, upbeat takes on classic stories that included the dark and slightly creepy (J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan) and the downright psychedelic (Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland); the Disney brand managed to make family friendly even the most unlikely of stories. Even though cracks began to show even by my high school years (I have always found Pocahontas' mishandling of history more than slightly insulting, and though I still love Aladdin and Jungle Book, as I get older--more and more--I hear Peter Griffin's comment, "Ah, that's good old-fashioned family racism"). However, Disney's fairy tales remain for many the gold standard against which others are judged; Beauty and the Beast and, more recently, Tangled and Frozen are all durned fine cinematic fairy tales. Lately, however, an interesting phenomenon has occurred; Disney seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of revisionist fairy tales that has been a dull roar for many years but which really kicked into high gear with the 2001 release from the Disney rival Dreamworks Pictures, Shrek. Following the immense success of that film and its 2004 sequel Shrek 2, both Dreamworks and Disney have been trying with varying degrees of success to reinvent the fairy tale wheel. They're not the only ones; the Japanese anime Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi (Ookami-san & her Seven Companions) and the sorely underrated Terry Gilliam film The Brothers Grimm have also been novel attempts to turn fairy tales on their head. Quite notably, the American live-action series Once Upon a Time is currently one of the more interesting TV shows on the air (okay, so OUaT is produced by ABC Studios, a subsidiary of Disney). As for Disney and their other subsidiaries, they have made a few high-profile cinematic stabs (Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland) at revisionist fairy tales, to mixed success, continuing to do best by simply tweaking the formula of their animated offerings (see: Frozen). This time around, however, they seem to definitely be on to something. And so, without further ado, my review of Maleficent.
This summer was, by most accounts, an incredibly weak one for films. True, several films found critical praise, a few developed rabid fan followings, and at least a couple were genuine box-office smashes. The one that arguably came closest to pulling off this hat trick (other than Guardians of the Galaxy) was Walt Disney Pictures' attempt to turn the tale of Sleeping Beauty on its head, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent. Focusing on the story of a character traditionally treated as a villain (and come on, with a name like that, who WOULD think she was a hero?), the film tells a remarkably compassionate tale of a powerful fairy driven by revenge to cast the curse that is at the core of the Sleeping Beauty tale; it is a tale dripping in magic and heart, very little of that due to the human cast. Of the revisionist fairy tales I've seen lately, this is one of the best; this is particularly remarkable due to the fact that screenwriter Linda Woolverton also wrote the recent revisionist take on Alice in Wonderland, a film which I found deeply flawed if rather enjoyable (granted, I am FAR more familiar with the source material for Alice, so take that into account). Anyway, this film starts out as sort of a love story between the young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) and a human who has wandered into her magical realm, Stefan (Michael Higgins). The two close friends, after many years, are forced into a parting of the ways when the now-grown Stefan (a suitably smarmy Sharlto Copley) is faced with a chance to either protect Maleficent against a cruel and vengeful king (Kenneth Cranham) or deliver her head to secure his own place as successor; the upwardly-mobile Stefan chooses the latter, though he spares her life, taking her wings instead. The now-grown Maleficent (Jolie), after a hideously over-the-top scene of grieving for her lost wings, grows dark, cruel and vengeful. When word reaches her that the king has had a daughter, she arrives to place upon young Aurora the famous curse, that before her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger upon a spindle and fall into a deep, deathlike sleep. Panicked, the king orders every spinning wheel in the kingdom destroyed, and places his daughter in protective custody, I mean, entrusts her to a a trio of fairies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple). Unbeknownst to the king, these three are sadly the most bumbling, inept, negligent caretakers a child could have, and young Aurora is actually raised more by Maleficent and her crow minion Diaval (a delightfully droll Sam Riley) than by her supposed caretakers. Eventually, Aurora (now played by a charming Elle Fanning) makes contact with Maleficent, calling her her "Fairy Godmother," and the latter's icy heart thaws considerably. Naturally, things need to be sorted out before the curse can take effect, but I'll leave it at that so that you can enjoy the movie for yourself. It is an enjoyable movie, no doubt, and at a slim 97 minutes leaves little time for one's attention to waver. The performances are solid, if over-the-top, and the same could be said for many aspects of the production; though my screening of the film was, sadly, beset by horrible lighting, I got the impression that this could be a gorgeous film on the right screen, with wondrous visuals and excellent camerawork. The score was quite good as well, and greatly enhanced the overall feel of the movie.
Maleficent: 8/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Cinematography, Production Design, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Makeup, Score, Sound Editing and Sound Effects Editing. Nominated for Best Costume Design.
Will purchase? Definitely, thought it will likely be a while.
Overall, this was a great and enjoyable film; it fell short of Oscar-level in most categories, but is eminently worthy of consideration anyway. I should note, however, that my computer is currently on vacation in purgatory, and so I have not typed up my usual point-by-point notes for this film; my Oscar notes may be revised upon doing so. This is one of the better family releases I've seen in the past couple years, and a fine stab at the revisionist fairy tale subgenre. I hope you enjoyed my take on it, and as always, I wish you happy viewing!