Thursday, June 19, 2014

MALEFICENT Afraid to Embrace Its Evil


- As a kid, I loved Halloween (still do), and I loved Halloween TV. I guess I grew up in a golden age of Halloween TV specials, where every October all of the networks would unveil kid-friendly programming that was delightfully spooky. One of the specials that I still think of with nostalgic affection was the Disney Halloween Special, that aired each year on ABC and The Disney Channel. In this special (hosted by The Magic Mirror), spooky shorts were intermixed with segments that highlighted all of the classic Disney villains, shining a spotlight on their most depraved acts of evil. The best of these segments was the one devoted to Maleficent, the iconic big bad from Sleeping Beauty. Even as a kid, it was clear: Maleficent was the bilest of villains, the queen of evil, the horn-hatted she-devil who you most definitely did *not* want to mess with. It's funny - Disney is known for kid-friendly fairy tales, but there has always been a real dark side to their animated classics. Disney villains have a long history of upstaging Disney heroes. And a lot of us, I think - myself certainly included - became Disney fans less so because of the whimsy and wonder, but more so because of Disney's dark side: evil queens, dastardly pirates, witches, ghosts, beasts, monsters, magic, and yes, Maleficent.

And so, I was actually really looking forward to the MALEFICENT movie. One of Disney's most iconic villains in her own movie? Perfectly cast, with Angelina Jolie in the title role? This could have, should have, been awesome. As it stands, the movie has its moments. There are glimpses of greatness, and some fantastic visuals. But something seriously got lost along the way. The same Disney that once gleefully corrupted my young mind with its Halloween Special is now, it seems, afraid to walk on the dark side.

What I mean is - and I say this without spoilers - is that Maleficent is at its best, predictably, when Jolie is allowed to go full-evil and just tear the house down. But oddly, surprisingly, the film only goes there on precious few occasions. Mostly, it seems intent on recasting the character as a hero, as someone who takes a brief detour to the dark side, but who is ultimately a force for good rather than evil.

That central disconnect - the desire to both have fun with Maleficent's villainy but also never truly let her be the villain - pretty much tears the movie apart at the seams. And the glimpses that we do get of the character at her worst (aka her best), make their fleetingness that much more frustrating. Why take one of the coolest and most flat-out evil-seeming Disney villains and make her a hero?

Again, the movie has a couple of things going for it that really do make this one a frustrating example of a movie that could-have-been-great. Like I said, Jolie is great. No one else could have played this part as well. She's got the look (her already severe features augmented with CGI - hello, razor-sharp cheekbones), she's got the voice down, she nails the dark humor in the script. And what's interesting is that Jolie manages to make Maleficent an interesting and even quasi-sympathetic character *even when she's clearly playing the part of the villain.*

I also think that MALEFICENT has some really, really impressive visuals at various points in the movie. Director Robert Stromberg has spent much of his career as a matte artist, and it shows. The best moments in this film, visually, are those that essentially function as living, breathing matte paintings. Scenes of the fairy kingdom from which Maleficent hails, populated with all manner of flora and fauna, are often stunning. Where Stromberg falters a bit is with the big action. The big army vs. army scenes, lifted wholesale from films like Lord of the Rings, feel choppy and a bit unnecessary. And a lot of the action just feels a bit flat. Stromberg's direction, for whatever reason, seems most effective in the smaller and quieter moments. The scenes meant to be big and epic don't quite pop as much as they should, nor do they always seem to convey the proper sense of scale that the movie is going for.

But really, the biggest issues lie with the script. The story gets off to a promising and intriguing start - showing us a young Maleficent in her magical realm, and revealing her first encounter with a human boy, who's wandered over from the much less-magical neighboring kingdom. We watch as the two form a bond, and then see that bond severed as the two grow older. The boy, trying to make a name for himself, takes advantage of Maleficent's trust in him, and betrays her in order to impress his king and grab power for himself. It's not a bad way to kick things off, but things get messier from there.

Eventually, the boy himself becomes king, and as an adult he's played by District 9's Sharlto Copley - who seems woefully miscast. I'm a big fan of Copley, but he excels at playing offbeat characters with a screw loose. His character seems to demand a sort of grim gravitas that Copley doesn't really pull off. In turn, the story eventually gets to the plot of Sleeping Beauty, with some great sequences in which a scorned Maleficent curses Copley's newborn daughter to fall into an eternal sleep when she gets older. All of that is cool - it's the Maleficent we know and want from the classic animated film. But then, things start to go off the rails a bit. We flash-forward as the now-teenaged princess, Aurora - played solidly by Elle Fanning - lives in isolation with her "aunts," three fairies who have pledged to help the King and his daughter, and to keep her away from harm. The fairies, played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple, provide occasional bouts of whimsy and comic relief, but there's a little too much of them, and they're a little too one-note (especially considering the talented actresses playing them). We never truly care about them as more than window-dressing. Additionally, the f/x used to make them seem diminutive are a bit questionable, with their heads looking glued-on to CGI bodies. In any case, this is where the movie seems to wholly forsake the idea of Maleficent as villain. She becomes less menacing by the minute. She forms a motherly relationship with young Aurora, and basically, she goes soft. The jarring transition is sort of augmented by Sam Riley as magical crow/human creature Diaval. Diaval, acting as Maleficent's sidekick, is basically a totally good dude. By virtue of him spending time with Maleficent, it's like a big fat signpost that reads "the badass has been watered down."

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for the increasingly benevolent Maleficent to again break bad. But oddly, it never happens, and the movie just sort of limps along with its title character as a generic do-gooder, who just happens to wear devilish black horns and bears a name that screams "evil."  I'm not totally sure how a Maleficent movie would work in which she's all-out evil. But I think there's a way to make her sympathetic and more fully fleshed-out without also making her into the hero of the film. I also don't buy the argument that, because this is *her* version of the story, we must take the events of the film, as told by Maleficent, with a heavy grain of Rashomon-style salt. The movie does nothing to imply that the version of events we're hearing may not be the "true" version.

MALEFICENT is an enjoyable film - parts of it looks fantastic, and Jolie crushes it. Flaws aside, it's a perfectly serviceable fantasy film and a nice movie to watch in order to escape from reality for a bit. But it is, ultimately, flat and somewhat lifeless, and I've got to think that the root cause is a script that refuses to embrace the character's true darkness - intent on subverting the iconography to little gain, rather than truly having fun with it. Has Disney lost its bite? Is the studio that so often, somewhat subversively, touts the evilness of its villains afraid to give its biggest and baddest a true showpiece? MALEFICENT seems like a spoil-sport, a movie that won't let us fully enjoy taking a detour to the dark side.

My Grade: B-

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