My Thoughts on “Maleficent” (2014)

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From what I had initially heard, I was uncertain of what I would find in this updated and reversed retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale. And considering how many people leave certain films either greatly underwhelmed or heavily betrayed, I tend to go to most films now with an extremely open mind and mid-level expectations.

In this case, I knew that Maleficent was going to be the main character. I knew that the three “good” fairies were going to be turned into bickering, careless morons. And I knew that (SPOILERS) Maleficent was going to break the curse by kissing Aurora on the forehead, because she had come to love her like a daughter. But, did all of that mean that this was going to be a bad film? Honestly, I didn’t think it would. And I’m pleased to say that I can indeed defend this film now for doing something unexpected: keeping Maleficent a bad-ass.

Now this review is not going to be a typical one, because we’re going to be hitting a few unique topic areas here which we have not tackled before, and some I don’t think anyone else has considered before either. We’re going to be looking at this film in context, and then compare it to its two cinematic counterparts (thus-far), Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful. And then we’re going to compare it to the original Disney film from the late 1950s, and see how it stands up.

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So firstly, is this film better than its competitors? Yes, I believe it is. Frankly speaking, Oz: The Great and Powerful was a horrific mess, and suffered harshly from a heavily unlikable leading character with a smile that just made you want to smack him, a laughable villainess played by the still very attractive Mila Kunis, an extremely generic and overly saturated universe with some of the fakest looking green-screen compositing I’ve seen in a while, and numerous cringe-worthy moments. It is all around, a very painful sit.

On the other hand, Alice In Wonderland is less painful and more irritatingly boring, and often pointless. It also suffers from trying to put too much logic into a world that lives on the sheer lack of logic. A world without logic has no need for war, unless it’s over trivial and meaningless things. And a world without logic has no need for prophesies, unless they’re about something trivial, or ridiculous, and ultimately pointless.

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But this Wonderland, or “Underland” tries to force a more typical plot into the story by making Alice the “The Chosen One” of this world of make-believe, and makes her the beacon of hope that all of the strange and foolish creatures of Underland must join together in battle against the Red Queen of Hearts. But I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with all of that if Alice herself hadn’t been such a blank and uninspiring plank of wood. She has no realistic reactions to anything, she does not pull me into the story or her plight, and she certainly doesn’t give me any reason to want to see her succeed. Now of course, some of the other characters and cast members do do a wonderful job with their roles.

Johnny Depp is a reasonable choice for the Mad Hatter. Although I much prefer Martin Short’s take on it for the Hallmark version. Helena Bonham Carter is a very good choice for the Queen of Hearts. And knowing some of Crispin Glover’s more recent cinematic choices, it seems fitting that he would choose to join a Tim Burton cast as the Captain of the Red Queen’s Guard. I can’t say the same for Anne Hathaway, though, for despite her solid acting chops and fetching screen presence, she seems extremely out of place and rather miscast as the White Queen. I didn’t even know there was a White Queen in the Wonderland books. Was there?

So with all of that said, how does Maleficent hold up? Well for one, its annoying characters are reduced to only three instead of eight, twelve, or the entire cast. The design of the world is still a tad overdone (I’ll get to more about that later on), but at least its level of concept design and cinematography design are much higher than in either Oz or Wonderland. The story is reasonable and consistent rather than unnatural in Wonderland, or forced and unrealistic in Oz. The main character is very likable and understandable even if she may not be entirely relatable. And the green screen effects are much more solid, even if they can still be noticeable during the opening and ending sequences. So all in all, this did not make me cringe, nor did it make me want to shut the movie off. And that’s already a plus. But I also extremely enjoyed it. And so it scores major points from me. Well done!

But let me now substantiate why I like it, because I imagine there are some of you out there who take issue with Maleficent’s portrayal here. And I don’t blame you. There is a precedent for that displeasure, and I shall address it properly.

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Maleficent, like many villainous characters, is an icon of evil. She imbues evil in every contour of her design. Her horns are sharp, her gaze is sharper, and her tongue is delicate, but also deathly harsh. And yet, despite her not being a true villain in this film, all of those attributes still ring true. So what’s the issue here? I think it may have to do with integrity.

It feels a lot like the issue many purists and fans of horror take with the Twilight Franchise, or the problem I take with a lot of modern Zombie films. They’re not the way they should be. Vampires used to be clever, cunning, suave, attractive, devilishly hungry, and strong. Now they’ve been turned into sprinting, sparkling loners who don’t have one iota of the stature or screen presence as Legosi or Lee, even if Legosi is—at times—laughable by today’s standards.

The same can be said for Zombies. I can’t speak for The Walking Dead (sad but true), which I assume has done a much better job depicting Zombies as of late. But in most other cinematic depictions and interpretations, Zombies have been pretty lame for the past decade. Back in the 1970s and 80s, Zombies were hungry for brains, they were indestructible, even after being cremated, and they could freaking tear you limb from limb while you were still alive and eat your guts while you watched. Now’a’days, they just lumber around, moaning like they always do, and get bashed in the head by gardening tools. The most creative Zombies have been in recent memory is in the Half Life games. But again, it seems like The Walking Dead has fixed that some.

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So in Maleficent’s case, she’s a character that stood at the top of the Disney villain roster as “The Mistress of all Evil.” So it’s understandable that people would take umbrage with her turn as a scorned woman turned chic villainess, but is ultimately a good person at heart. However, is it really so bad?

In my case, I can accept this new interpretation, because unlike her Disney counterparts, Maleficent had much less of a backstory and much less substantial or established motivations for what she did in the 1959 film. What was her problem again? She threw a fuss because she didn’t get invited to a baby’s birthday celebration? Whoa! Earth shattering motivation! She  must now curse the Princess to die of heavy sleeping, murder Prince Phillip, and destroy the kingdom’s economy by preventing further trade with a wall of thorns… for all eternity?

Brilliant?

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I mean, if Prince Phillip had failed to stop Maleficent, wake the Princess up and save the Kingdom, what would Maleficent have gained from that? What exactly was the point she was trying to make? I have no idea.

Now in someone like Jafar’s case, he had a clear-cut motivation. He wanted to become Sultan to rule over the kingdom and call all the shots. He also wanted to become a powerful sorcerer who had powers that nothing or no one could match.

Scar (Lion King) held a distaste for his brother and wanted to rule the Pride Lands and become its king. So he killed his brother, banished his nephew, and brought along his army of Hyenas to serve as his army of minions. Even though later, Scar found the job to be rather taxing and irritating.

Frollo (Hunchback of Notre Dame) felt as if he was God’s chosen emissary, and felt tasked to cast out all the heathens in his domain, and kill anyone who interfered with him. He also had a lust for that which he persecuted, and he even prayed for God to grant him Esmerelda, otherwise he would kill her as well.

Ursula (The LIittle Mermaid) used to live in the Palace of Atlantica, and grew to despise Triton, perhaps while working as a court Magician, until Triton became fed up with her antics. Maybe she even caused a few disasters to happen. We were never fully told what she used to do there. But once she was banished to her little hovel, she took it upon herself to spy on Ariel (not unlike Maleficent does here), except she wanted to harm Ariel and trick her into giving up her voice, and signing away her soul to use as a bargaining chip with Triton and his Trident.

So as you can see, every villain here had a clear motivation of wanting to enforce their rules and their leadership upon the less fortunate, by any means necessary. Maleficent on the other hand, held no real grudge, meaningful or otherwise, against King Stefan in the original film. Nor did she wish to rule his kingdom in his place. And just as well, Stefan never cut off her wings, he never fell in love with her and left her alone, and none of his forces ever invaded her homeland. And despite Maleficent claiming to be the Mistress of all evil and trying to kill Phillip at the gates to the kingdom, the things that she did behind the scenes were never fully developed as much as these later villains were. And Stefan was never much of a character himself beyond his stuttering speech and generally pleasant demeanor.

So despite the rampant fandom and love for this character as she was, story-wise and character-wise, there was room for interpretation without really changing too much. She still retained her intimidating screen presence, both before and after she donned the black garments. She still retained her green-tinted magic powers. She still controlled thorns and plant-life. And she still had her elegant voice and piercing gaze, all brilliantly portrayed by a (personally surprisingly) fitting Angelina Jolie.

As a comparison, if Aladdin were to be re-made and called The Grand Vizier, I’m sure we’d all have one hell of a fit if Jafar suddenly became a good guy trying to usurp the Sultan from behind the scenes, because the Sultan is a lying cheating bastard. Because that would both alter an absolutely despicable character into a good guy, and a completely lovable Sultan into a horrible @$$-hole. Jafar spoke to Iago often about his plans to take over. And the Sultan, while a bit childish and perhaps clueless to the problems in his city, was a kind and benevolent ruler. So changing up both dynamics would neither make sense, nor would they be very interesting or likable changes to fans. Because while changing a bad guy into a good guy can be awkward, changing a sweet and lovable good guy into a bad guy is even worse.

So again, by comparison, Maleficent’s story alterations were not nearly as earth shattering as one might think.

I can admit some disappointment from not seeing Maleficent use her shape-shifting powers on herself. As what made her one of the most memorable villains in film history was her transformation into a dragon. But I still think she comes out on top here even without that.

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There is also the issue of the subtext within the scene where Stefan drugs and mutilates Maleficent: as it can easily and obviously be interpreted as a metaphor for date-rape. And if you want a further discussion of that, I suggest you check out this somewhat more heated, but no less valid review from Meredith Woerner on io9: http://io9.com/how-could-disney-do-this-to-maleficent-1585013187. And while I don’t entirely agree that Disney screwed up with this new interpretation as Ms. Woerner did, I do agree that the choice to make losing her wings akin to date-rape was, in hindsight, an unnecessary and rather unsettling choice. I am actually starting to notice a considerable number of “raped women turn into bad-ass” character back-stories in movies and tv series these days. And it’s something that really ought not to be a “go-to” motivation for female characters, or even worse, a cliché.

Returning to the reinterpreted cast: the only characters that I felt were truly dealt a bad hand, and were horribly re-interpreted, were the three fairies, because they are TERRIBLE. They’re ditsy, they’re clumsy, they’re thoughtless, they’re careless, and completely inept: which in my opinion is a much greater betrayal than Maleficent turning good. At least everything Maleficent was known for was still in this film. She was still a force to be reckoned with. But the fairies have no remnant of their former selves at all. Not their names, not their personalities, and later on, not even their colors. They used to be the freaking stars of the film, and now they’re second rate comic relief. All three of whom are completely and utterly unlikable.

That, my friends, is what I consider the biggest blunder here.

On a more minor note, I have a bit of an issue with something that I find it strange to even have an issue with, considering who I am and what I like. But I actually felt that the land of the Moors was a tad overdone.

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It was impressive to be sure. Gorgeous colors, creative character designs, brilliant mastery of ambient and reflective lighting on the part of the 3D lighting artists. And of course it was conceived by the film’s director, who served as the Production Designer of both Oz, Alice, and in fact, Avatar. So it’s no wonder that this fantasy world comes off so similar. But in the end, it gives off this vibe of falseness that tries too hard to be “whimsical.”

You see, a fantasy world has to be grounded in some form of reality in order for it to be taken seriously. And nowhere should that concept be more important than in film. Because as you can see, almost all fantasy elements these days are produced by computers. It could be creatures, it could be environments, or objects, or buildings, or even just someone’s face could all be computer generated if something fantastical comes into contact with it. Back in the day, though, things had to be made out of real, physical materials, and presented in creative ways.

Creatures were either full-sized suits, puppets, marionettes, or stop-motion figures. Giant castles were either matte paintings or miniatures. And explosions or magical powers like lightning and smoke trails were either live pyrotechnics, or 2D animated photographic effects. And because everything had to be built or crafted from real materials, the designs had to be handled in such a way that they would be practical and doable within the limits of craftsmanship and technology. But now, we can put anything we want on screen. There are no limits. And therefore, people no longer put limits on their imagination.

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However, I think that can cause a bit of a problem. Because while I think the world of the Moors is beautiful to look at, I don’t find myself wanting to actually go there, because none of the creatures featured there felt real to me. They didn’t feel like they lived in a real, tangible way. They were way too happy and content with themselves, almost putting on a show every time you looked at them. They never ate anything, nor did they appear to have any form of homes or dwellings. And none of them ever spoke, except for Maleficent and the three color-coded fairies: which of course was strange, and should be. Why didn’t any of the other creatures speak English? How could Maleficent speak English? If she had never come into contact with humans before she met Stefan, then why could she speak a common human language at all, let alone English?

Anyway. My point is that to make a fictional world feel inviting and tangible, you can’t just make it look pretty. Making something look pretty shouldn’t automatically mean that it’s worth your time. That’s true of movies, that’s true of technology, and that’s definitely true of people. Just because they look good doesn’t mean they are good. And just because something looks dull and unappealing doesn’t mean that it really is either.

I’ll admit, I love to look at artwork that looks like the Moors. I see it all the time on deviantart and in Youtube speed-paints. It’s a very common ideal of fairy lands these days. Which is perhaps one of the other reasons why I don’t like it so much: because it feels so typical of today’s design aesthetics. But again, it doesn’t work for me as much as it may you because it feels overdone and overly pretty.

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If perhaps some of the creatures had been depicted as puppets or animatronics, and had been given a more meaningful purpose—perhaps if they had made one of the troll-like characters an uncle or father figure to Maleficent—then I may have accepted her world a lot more. And maybe if the fairies and jelly-fish-like creatures that were floating around had some meaningful tasks or business to attend to once-in-a-while, like the fairies in Fantasia did with changing the flowers as the seasons shifted, then perhaps I would also have accepted it more. As it is, it just feels tacked on. And Maleficent ends up looking more like a queen of clueless woodland animals in the middle of a glade rather than a queen of magnificent magical beasts.

So there you are. I officially give Maleficent my seal of approval. You may not feel the same, but I think I gave enough reasons why I’m behind it. There’s plenty of other nitpicks to be had, such as how or when exactly did Maleficent gain magical powers? Because she didn’t have any when she could fly. Or why did Aurora only sleep for an hour or two before she was woken up, when in the original story she was supposed to have slept for centuries. But any way you look at it, the original 1959 Disney depiction will always be there. Just as the original Star Trek movies will always be there for those of you who don’t like the J. J. Abrams films.

As I look at it, new interpretations aren’t ever a bad thing, unless they become a downhill slope, or a continuous problem. In the case of Twilight, those books and film series have subsequently caused a lot of great old movie monsters to be turned into teen-romance fodder, including zombies and werewolves. And that trend may continue for a little while longer, especially as more teen fantasy and sci-fi novels continue to be the order of the day with Hollywood money-makers. Maleficent, however, does not suffer that same issue. She seems to suffer from a completely different illness: Frost-bite, which is the modern Disney concept of having true love be related to family rather than romantic interests. And to me, that’s actually an okay change of pace, because it’s a step in a better, unconventional, and more inclusive direction. And just like with all trends, good or bad, they eventually die out and new ones replace them. But this iteration is not so bad.

So pick up this film, and enjoy.

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