Friday, June 13, 2014

Movie Review: Maleficent

Lately, Hollywood has been on a fairy-tale kick. From the show "Once upon a Time" to the movies "Snow White and the Huntsman" and the upcoming live-action "Cinderella," the writers have become determined to re-tell classic fairy tales, often by dramatically changing the story. The difference for the new film "Maleficent" is that the writers harken back to the Disney 1959 version for inspiration and essentially retell that version. Because of this, I will make frequent comparisons between the two.


As I mentioned, this movie is a basic re-telling of the Disney 1959 version and offers up potential backstory. There are two kingdoms: the kingdom of greedy humans and the Moors, a beautiful place where fairies and other magical creatures dwell, and these kingdoms are constantly at war with each other. Young fairy Maleficent befriends the orphan boy Stefan, and they remain close for years. However, Stefan, due to his ambition to become king, betrays his childhood friend. Angered by this, Maleficent becomes bitter and takes it out on his newborn daughter Aurora by cursing her. But, Maleficent soon begins to grow attached to the young princess and befriends her, which makes her question the curse that she placed on her.

The plot was pretty quick-moving and pretty easy to understand. In one sense, I like how the writers offered up back story on Maleficent: why she had horns, why she did not have wings, why she used a staff, where her crow came from, why she cursed Aurora, etc... It was fascinating and offered up a good explanation. However, after Aurora was cursed, the entire storyline shifted from the 1959 version into something completely different. The embittered Maleficent, in place of the incompetent fairies, begins looking after the young princess and even ends up befriending her. It changes even further when Maleficent tries to stop the curse, and then she and her shape-shifting companion Diaval get caught in a battle with Stefan and his soldiers. Personally, I liked the back story but was not a big fan of the story entirely changing after that (partly because of the characters, which I will detail later).

The cast was decent. Angelina Jolie had enormous shoes to fill since Eleanor Audley did such an amazing job back in 1959. She had her moments, namely in the cursing Aurora scene, where she did a good job, but elsewhere I got very mixed feelings about her character. Maleficent (as evidenced by her name, which comes from the Latin word for "bad") was portrayed as truly evil villain in 1959, describing herself as "the mistress of all evil." Here, she's nothing more than a very conflicted person. She has her moments of hatred and bitterness then moments of being mischievous (like pranking Aurora's three caretakers) then moments of being more concerned and perhaps even loving. For me, it felt like her character was inconsistent; in the film, she is described as being neither villain nor hero, but in the end it makes her a muddled character that I'm not sure whether to dislike or like. Sharlto Copley, who plays Stefan, did a good job portraying the ambitious, schizo-paranoid king though the role reminds me of his similar role in "Elysium." Elle Fanning was an ok actress, but I had more problems with the character of Aurora. In this movie, Aurora is portrayed as always happy and smiling and comes across as being a ditz; there is a way to portray a happy person without being totally innocuous, and I wish the writers had given Aurora more personality. As for the three fairies who serve as Aurora's caretakers, I did not like their role in this movie. They came across as completely incompetent caretakers (which makes sense given that they know nothing about humans), but they spent most of their time fighting with each other. While the 1959 film had the three disagreeing, at least they had personalities and had a decent role in the story, putting the castle to sleep and aiding Philip in his battle, but in this movie they have very little part to play and come across as unnecessary.

Along the lines of the characters, I have heard of contentions over the film being feminist. My take on it is this: I don't care if the females or the males are heroes, but my big problem is adding characters into the story who are passive or have very minimal roles to play. Prince Philip is the biggest offender. In the original film, he has to defeat Maleficent and kiss Aurora to wake her up, but here he has neither role; he is pretty much either carted around by Maleficent or looking at Aurora like a love-sick teenager, making him a passive character. The three fairies are also passive, fluttering around and fighting instead of being productive. Even though the entire story was changed, the male and female characters, even the minor ones, should have some active role to take part in, not act like leftovers from the original.

Another issue that I had character-wise was the portrayal of the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. I have read some reviewers who called it "slighty queer." I admit I have no idea what the writers were really meaning to convey, but this is because the relationship is not developed much. Montages show Aurora being saved by Maleficent or Aurora gleefully running all over the Moor while Maleficent watches, but I got little from the montages. Montages in film can offer development, even for characters (a friend and I discussed this, and I offered up the eight-minute montage in "Up" as an example), but the lack of dialogue between the two means that the relationship seems to be conjured out of thin air. I personally did not find the relationship to be like that of a mother and a daughter, but I cannot define what exactly it was like other than being a bit strange.

Some of the special effects were beautiful. I loved the flying shots over the Moors, and the Moors at night reminded me of Pandora from James Cameron's "Avatar." However, some of them looked a bit silly, like the mud-throwing creatures and the numerous nameless ones, which was a bit of a contrast to the beautiful enchanted kingdom. However, some of them, like Diaval in his dragon form, were not as compelling, especially in contrast to the 1959 dragon.

In the end, I enjoyed some parts of the film. I liked the concept though not all of its execution, and now I am interested in seeing the original version again.

I give it two stars out of five.

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