Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Maleficent

Maleficent was directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton.

This is Stromberg's directorial debut; prior to this he was a special effects artist and production designer on Avatar, Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland and Oz, The Great And Powerful. Maleficent shares a definite design sensibility with those last two.

In addition to starring in the film, Angelina Jolie also served as an executive producer.

This is Disney's attempt at the Wicked-ization of Sleeping Beauty, as they reimagine the story from the point of view of Maleficent and paint her in a more sympathetic light. 

Like it or hate it, you can't argue with the film's success. So far it's grossed an astonishing $500 million worldwide.


The Plot:
Maleficent's a young orphaned fairy who lives in the Moors, a magical land next door to a human kingdom. As a child she meets and falls in love with a human boy named Stephan. Years later, she's betrayed by Stephan, who's only interested in greed and power. He mutilates Maleficent by cutting off her wings, an act which makes him king of his realm.

When King Stephan and his queen have a daughter named Aurora, a vengeful Maleficent places a curse on the infant: on her sixteenth birthday she'll prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and sleep forever, unless awakened by True Love's Kiss.

Stephan sends Aurora away to be raised by three fairies in the hopes that she'll avoid the curse. Maleficent begins watching over young Aurora, protecting her from the fairies' gross incompetence. Over the years she grows fond of the child and becomes her fairy godmother.

Unfortunately the curse comes true and Aurora falls into a coma. She's awakened by a kiss from Maleficent though, who realizes she loves her. Motherly love, that is. Get yer mind outta the gutter.

• The film opens on a happy young Maleficent flitting around the Moors. Question: Who the hell gave her THAT name? It sounds like a combination of "malevolent" and "magnificent," but "maleficent" is actually a real word. It means "
doing evil or harm; harmfully malicious."

Why saddle a kid with a horrible name like that? No wonder she turned bad. They might as well have called her Hitlerina Evildoer.

Wouldn't it have made more sense if her name had been "Thistleberry" or something like that, and then after she was violated and turned to evil she renamed herself?

Methinks the filmmakers assumed the majority of the audience wouldn't have any idea that her name was a real word and so didn't bother to explain it.

• I don't mind filmmakers "reinventing" stories like this, but I am NOT a fan of movies that insist on justifying the villain's antisocial behavior. Why can't a character simply be an evil asshole? 
Why does there always have to be some deep seated psychological reason or justification for their actions?

Wasn't Darth Vader far more interesting before we found he used to be a whiny teen Jedi?

• Maleficent's look was created by Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker. To her credit, Angelina Jolie was insistent that the makeup look as close as possible to the animated version. Baker designed a set of lightweight urethane horns for Jolie, as well as razor-sharp prosthetic cheekbones. 

The one big difference from Sleeping Beauty-- Maleficent's skin color. The animated version has a sickly green completion, but Baker vetoed that idea, as he claimed he didn't want to hide Jolie's natural beauty.

• In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent was voiced by actress Eleanor Audley. You may not recognize her name, but if you watched any TV at all in the 1960s and 1970s you'll recognize her face. She guest starred on virtually every sitcom of the time. She was best known as Oliver Douglas' mother on Green Acres, and Mrs. Schuyler-Potts, headmistress of the Potts School that Jethro attended on The Beverly Hillbillies.

She also voiced the Wicked Stepmother in Disney's Cinderella and Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland and Disney World.

• When King Henry's army attacks the Moors, Maleficent drives them back with winds generated from her mighty wings. It's a cool scene, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that if her wings are flapping hard enough to knock men off their horses, they should be propelling her backward with equal force.

• Most of the production design is top notch, but take a look at this Tree Warrior. It's the spitting image of the Balrog from The Fellowship Of The Ring. Same drooping horns and everything. All that's missing is Gandalf shouting, "You Shall Not Pass!"

• Stephan wants to be the king, but first he has to defeat Maleficent and her magic army. To do so, he gives her a roofie and knocks her out. He can't bring himself to outright kill her though, so he does something even worse-- he slices off her wings.

First of all, that must have been some knock-out potion he gave her. She slept right through her grisly de-winging! And Stephan didn't use a blade, he used a piece of iron-- which sears fairy skin-- to burn through them. Yikes!

Second, I never thought I'd live to see a blatant rape metaphor in a Disney movie, but here it is. And lest you think I'm reading too much into it, Angelina Jolie herself confirms it.

• After Maleficent's wings are cruelly removed, she's no longer able to soar carefree through the skies. She then enlists the help of a crow named Diaval (that she periodically turns into a human) to "be her wings" and spy for her.

Oddly enough all through the movie she has no trouble levitating other people and causing them to float through the air. I guess it never occurred to her to use this power on herself?

• When Maleficent uses her powers, sometimes her magic has a yellowish color, and other times it's a sickly green. I think it's green whenever she's doing something evil. I wish they'd made it green all the time though, as it looked cooler and matched what we saw in the animated version.

• Stephan becomes king, takes a wife and they have a baby girl they name Aurora.

For such a pro-feminist movie with a nearly all-female cast, the Queen definitely gets shafted. She's in the film for five minutes, tops. She doesn't even rate an on-screen death.

• Bent on revenge against King Stephan, Maleficent crashes baby Aurora's christening. In a nice touch, the dialog in this scene is almost word for word the same as in the animated version.

• Maleficent places a curse on baby Aurora: On her sixteenth birthday she'll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a permanent coma. A couple of things here.

That's a pretty darned specific curse. Why bring a spinning wheel into it? What are the odds that she'd just happen to touch one on her birthday? Especially since she's a princess, and would have armies of servants to do her spinning for her.

Later on Maleficent finds the kid's starting to grow on her and she realizes she was a little harsh with the whole cursing thing and tries to remove it. Unfortunately she can't. Wha...? So she has the power to word a curse in such a way even she can't find a loophole in it? Wow, she missed her calling. With a talent like that, she should be a lawyer, writing ironclad contracts and legal documents.

• After Aurora is cursed, King Stephan decides to save her by sending her away until after she's sixteen. Not the worst plan I've heard. However, he's currently at war with the Fairies of the Moors, so naturally he enlists three of them to raise his infant daughter. Brilliant! 

He just handed his daughter over to three of his sworn enemies! Who, by the way, have no reason to recognize his authority and obey him (but inexplicably do so anyway).

• The three Fairy Godmothers (who are a lot like an all-female Three Stooges) are so incompetent that they don't even know how to nurse a baby. There are two ways to interpret this. 

One, they don't know anything about infant care because fairies aren't human and spring whole from the ground or something. Or two, they're incompetent because they've sworn off magic and don't know how to do anything by hand. I guess it's up to the viewer to decide which is correct.

By the way, Knotgrass, the Red Fairy, is played by Imelda Staunton. You may recognize her as Delores Umbridge from Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Apparently any time she's in a fantasy movie she's required to wear red or pink.

• On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora is magically compelled to leave the forest, walk into a dungeon and poke her finger on a spindle.

This actually makes sense, since as I said before, it seems like a very specific curse and one that would be pretty easy to avoid. Making it a magical inevitability was a good move on the part of the screenwriter.

However, I could swear that King Stephan ordered all spinning wheels in his kingdom to be burned. We even see them piled onto a big bonfire right after Aurora was born. So why was there a huge stash of them in the dungeon years later?

• After Aurora falls into her magic coma, Maleficent attempts to break the curse with True Love's Kiss. To do so, she kidnaps Prince Phillip (who Aurora has known for about an hour) and sneaks him into the castle so he can kiss Aurora and waken her. Phillip plants one on her lips and... nothing happens. 

Maleficent, who never believed in True Love in the first place, grimly accepts the fact that Aurora will sleep forever and it's all her fault. She kisses her lightly on the forehead and as she turns to leave, Aurora immediately wakes up. Huzzah! She was saved by True Love's Kiss after all! 

So... does that mean that Prince Phillip doesn't really love Aurora? Kind of seems that way, eh? At the end of the movie it looks like she and Phillip are married. I guess it must be of those royal weddings that exists only to unite two kingdoms and consolidate power rather than one born of love.

By the way, when Maleficent kisses Aurora and wakes her, we cut to Diaval the crow-man, who apparently thinks the audience is a bunch of morons and helpfully points out, "True Love's Kiss." 

Thanks, movie. I'd never have been able to figure that out on my own. I hate when films point out things that we just saw fifteen minutes earlier.

• Surrounded by King Stephan's men, Maleficent turns Diaval into a dragon (a pretty useless dragon too, by the way) in order to defeat them. I kind of wish they'd have had Maleficent herself transform into the dragon herself, as that's always been my favorite part of the animated version. 

• In the third act Maleficent and King Stephan have a final battle. This is a Disney movie, so even though Stephan is trying to kill her, she can't kill him, because that wouldn't be heroic, dontcha know. 

Instead Stephan lunges at her, loses his balance and topples off a tower to his death. Disney villains almost always get their comeuppance by causing their own deaths. See Frollo in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Clayton in Tarzan, and Syndrome in The Incredibles for other examples.

Maleficent is a stylish reimagining of Sleeping Beauty that concentrates on the poor misunderstood villain instead of the hero. I give it a B.

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