Friday, June 6, 2014

'Maleficent': Absolutely Malodorous

No movie studio knows when to let a good thing stand on its own, but if any of these powerful entertainment companies have squeezing blood from a stone down to a science, it's the good folks at Disney. Drive off director Edgar Wright from Marvel's long-gestating Ant-Man due to corporate meddling? Certainly! Push for a new episode of Star Wars every other year, and fill the time in-between with spin-offs to overly saturate the market? Absolutely! Whitewash and cleanse free of controversial topics those pesky "based on a true story" flicks, whether they focus on J.B. Bernstein or Walt Disney? Par for the course! So it's really no surprise that the company decided to remake one of their own tales from the vantage point of one of their most celebrated villains. Ironically, Disney's Sleeping Beauty is one of the company's lesser animated films. Yes, it had its basis in the original fairy tale and the variant La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault, but even as a story it doesn't stand up compared to even fare from twenty years ago: the plot is illogical, the dialogue and music are corny, and the "heroine" is a void shell desperately in need of rescue. In fact, Sleeping Beauty's ONLY saving grace is its villain, the great evil fairy Maleficent, whose awe-inspiring presence and unique character design make her one of the greatest all-time animated creations.
... and is STILL a great character.
Naturally, Disney does what it can to screw that up in the first few minutes of Maleficent by giving the audience a painful - EXCRUCIATING - opening sequence, where we see young, totally-not-as-talented-as-Angelina-Jolie actors spit inane dialogue that could have been handled by animated sequences and the in-house narrator (Janet McTeer), who was already doing a fine job of laying out the exposition in a timely and appropriate fashion. Then there's the story, which insists that the future villainess (Angelina Jolie, who hasn't been in a movie since 2010's atrocious The Tourist) is not really evil, but forced into doing wicked things by MAN (in this flick, that word seems to be in reference to the gender, not the species), who seem to want to wage war against the mystical creatures over whom Maleficent rules, for no good reason. Really, none of the character motivations make any sense, as the only reason the kingdom of Man are so malicious and greedy is... because they're so malicious and greedy. There's never any exploration into WHY there's friction between these two next-door nations, as for the most part the magical realm seems quite content to keep to itself. So from moment one, you're already not buying the movie's premise.
Because the hot guy quotient must be filled. There are girls in the audience, after all!
The acting is at least solid across most of the board, though not completely. Jolie, returning to the screen after four years, picked a gem in which to make her return, as she casually and naturally personifies a character that remains powerful after 55 years. And it's not just the make-up, either (normally I don't bother to mention the make-up department, but they did an amazing job with all the characters, and not just the title heroine), as Jolie's charisma and talent do an amazing job, despite not having the best material with which to work. Not too far behind are Elle "not-Dakota" Fanning as Princess Aurora and Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent's lackey. Fanning has a much simpler role than Angelina (and it's not much of an improvement over her animated counterpart) but she does her absolute best to give Aurora a personality, which is more than I possibly could have asked. And while Riley falls squarely in the "comedic sidekick" genre, he also has his moments to shine. In fact, the best scenes of the movie often involve Jolie, either by herself or working opposite Fanning and/or Riley, and the trio present some of the film's most human moments. Sadly, good times pretty much end there. Sharlto Copley tries hard but is a disaster, and obviously not a good enough actor to overcome the deficiencies of a script that give him every cliched villain bit in the book. And the buffoonery of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple as the three good fairies gets achingly old after their first appearance, and their smaller, computer generated forms suffer from extreme uncanny valley. Finally, Brenton Thwaites' obligatory appearance as Prince Philip feels unnecessary, most notably because his presence IS unnecessary by the virtues of the plot and the concept, rounding out a simultaneously talented and disappointing cast. Obviously Jolie was always going to be the star of the show, but they could have at least TRIED to surround her with more interesting stories and people.

Now, let's talk about the date rape.
Because seriously, you want to piss her off?
I know I'm not the first or only one who noticed this, but I'm honestly shocked there's not more of an outrage by parents who brought their young daughters to the theaters to see this. At the end of the first act, Maleficent is approached by the grown-up man (Copley) whom she'd fallen in love with in the first five minutes, settles into trusting him, is drugged, and then is violently stripping of her wings, which are not the source of her power but a powerful metaphor nonetheless. And in case you don't get the emphasis, it's nailed home in the following scene, which sees the woman awaken from her drug-induced coma, realize the physical violation that has come upon her, and break down emotionally and physically at the betrayal from someone she thought she could trust. She even has difficulty walking afterwards - to the point where she needs a cane to get around - and if that doesn't bring up flashbacks of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I don't know what will. And THAT movie was deservedly rated R.
Evil, and big hats. That's all Man seems to be exporting these days.
And the sad part is, I wouldn't even argue that the scene shouldn't be here, as the near-silent performance by Jolie speaks volumes and creates extremely powerful emotions in those who witness it. I am a man and have never been subject to that kind of cruel behavior, nor could I ever truly empathize with that kind of trauma, but my God as a decent human being, I FELT her pain. It is by far the best scene in the whole movie, and while that might seem like faint praise when I finish I assure you it is not. That this scene even exists is both a revelation and a tragedy when you really think about what it represents.Honestly, my chief complaint is that Maleficent isn't a PG-13 movie, as many recent fairy tale adaptations have been, and this kind of scene would have been more appropriate for that audience, rather than the age 6-12 set that this was film was marketed towards. Because of that, this scene feels woefully out of place.
You're not your sister, but you'll do.
Further complicating matters is that after so poignant, so powerful a scene, the film just can't keep up the momentum. Both the script (Julie Woolverton, whose last atrocity was Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) and direction (first timer Robert Stromberg, an award-winning Art Director) are completely lacking, disappointing when you consider the enormous potential this film had. There are a few decent scenes later on (most of which involve Jolie not just chewing the scenery, but dicing it up with her extra-sharp cheekbones), but the story is just so much of a mess that it derails the whole process every time you think it might just be getting started. However, the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora is given a ton of attention, and for the most part I believe this is one element that the filmmakers got 100% right. In this variation on the tale, Aurora believes the woman who put that curse upon her as a baby (which she knows nothing about, of course) to in fact be her fairy godmother, which goes hand in hand with Maleficent actually raising the child in secret, instead of the aforementioned doltish fairies who have no business caring for the her (again, the logic of Maleficent makes absolutely no sense) and developing feelings of her own towards the young woman whom she soon realizes she no longer holds a grudge against. That relationship (starting with the classic cursing scene in the castle throne room) is the only thing that keeps the movie from being a total train-wreck, but only by a few threads.
So, Robert Zemeckis was in charge of the CGI, right? That's why it's so bad?
The special effects are also shockingly uneven, with some of the more monstrous creature designs feeling so meticulously designed and gorgeous to behold (including a giant man-eating earth worm, tree-people warriors, and the obligatory fire-breathing dragon), while many of the elements take on a cartoonish appearance, most notably the atmospheric effects, but also the more "innocent" of the magical creatures. This also applies to the aforementioned Good Fairies, who never look remotely authentic when they're shrunken down to their smaller forms. The lack of chemistry between these two styles is jarring, and every time it upends the mood of the film, which definitely wants to be dark and brooding but just can't resist going down that comedic path every chance it gets. When you need your visual effects to keep up the spirits of your younger audience members, it helps when they look as though they were cut from the same cloth, something an Oscar winner apparently forgot.
Even at a distance, Angelina owns.
Disney plugged date rape into a family film geared towards young girls. And then they had the audacity to wrap a bad movie around it. Maleficent has its moments, especially when Angelina is deservedly front and center, and at the very least it's a visually appealing - if inconsistently so - couple of hours. But the story makes Snow White and the Huntsman look like Shakespeare in comparison, and doesn't have nearly the talent behind the camera to pull everything together. The story is junk, the motivations are insane, and the morals are all over the place, as there doesn't even seem to be a message behind all this pomp and circumstance. I think Jolie can do no wrong, but even if she gets nominated for an Oscar I don't think that would justify sitting down with your family and checking out this movie. It's easily one of the year's worst, and exists as proof that Disney needs to reign in on its cash-cow business methods. They wrung blood from that stone, but it's a funky shade of puce, and I really don't want any more of it on me.

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