Saturday, 17 October 2015

Fairy Tales

“Maleficent”


This is, I believe, the first review I ever wrote, long before I considered starting a blog. Youll notice disparities between my current writing and the writing found in this early work. I hope the difference reflects well, if not on me, at least on your judiciousness.

The regal Angelina Jolie, grabbing attention and holding it with a firmer grasp than the all-share holds over a coke addict

In Maleficent, Disney’s new live-action release, the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty gets the “Wicked treatment”, in which the well known tale is told from the perspective of its villain, providing a back story to explain her malice and inviting us to sympathise with someone we’ve been taught to distrust and despise. Unlike Wicked, however, Maleficent does not act as a parallel to its source, but is a re-telling, shifting the “good” and “bad” sides and giving an entirely different conclusion to the story.

If any of the early Disney classics were to be chosen for adaptation into a contemporary 3D CGI-laden blockbuster, Sleeping Beauty might just be the best choice. Often hailed as one of Walt’s best, it features magnificent stylised designs by the painter Eyving Earle, also the film’s art designer, giving it a truly unique look, a lush score by George Bruns, based on Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet, moments of grandeur and one of the most menacing villains in the canon. It was also the first to be photographed and released in the 70mm-widescreen format and the last fairytale adaptation by the studio until The Little Mermaid, 30 years later, long after Walt Disney’s death. The visuals of this film, stunningly rendered by the photography crew and effects artists, don’t look like a photo-real copy of Earle’s gorgeous paintings, but rather like another rendition of the same universe. The forest has the same charming quaintness and calmness in its isolation from the castle, which has the same medieval austerity, though this time with a harsher atmosphere about it because of the people who inhabit it. The director, Robert Stromberg, was production designer on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, and this film takes place in another rich dreamscape, though it’s a little less superbly bizarre than Avatar or Alice, because it professes to exist on our planet.

The film opens with sweeping shots of the traditional green human kingdom, and the radiant fairy kingdom, and a voice-over explaining that once these two adjacent realms hated one another (this hatred between the peoples, incidentally, is not shown anywhere in the film). A young fairy named Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), with vast wings apprehends a boy who has stolen a jewel from the fairy kingdom. The two instantly connect as friends and over the years their friendship turns into “true love”, or so we and Maleficent are told. The boy, Stephan (Sharlto Copley), doesn’t hesitate to tell of his ambition to one day be king and live in the castle, despite being an orphaned peasant. One day, for reasons not entirely clear, the reigning king (Kenneth Cranham) declares war on the fairy kingdom, but is ably beaten back by Maleficent, who is now the protector of her kingdom. Presumably angered by this humiliation, the king offers his daughter and crown to any of the unnamed parties attending to him, who kills “the wingéd creature”. One of these is Stephan, who goes to Maleficent with the pretext of warning her. They spend the night together, he drugs her, and just before driving a dagger through her heart, he is seized by his lone moment of compassion, and he decides instead to remove her wings, a scene interpreted by many, as was the filmmakers’ apparent intention, as a rape scene for a PG film. We’re then taken through a number of plot contrivances to get the enraged Maleficent to the christening of Aurora, the daughter of newly crowned King Stephan.

This scene, as well as the preceding machinations, are ostensibly in an effort to get this film to resemble the original. Indeed, in the christening scene, much of the dialogue, and all the characters’ and locations’ appearances are directly copied from the original, and given the new information we have on Maleficent and what brought her to behave as she does, the original film’s material doesn’t work here. I would’ve found it easier to excuse these faults if the filmmakers were intent on making a film that could exist alongside the original, but, as the story unfolds, it becomes clearer that they deviate further and further from the source and the end product is an entirely different invention, and the earlier attempts to knit the two together are found to be wholly unnecessary.

The curse Maleficent places on the baby Aurora includes the promise that she will grow to be beautiful and kind, and all who meet her will love her. After the christening, the princess is taken into hiding by the three so called “good fairies” – kind, warm-hearted and endearingly funny godmothers in the original, cringing, fickle and pitifully unhelpful maids here – but very quickly found again by Maleficent. Here, the original plot is entirely abandoned and Maleficent begins a relationship with the princess, and falls prey to her own spell: she realises that she loves Aurora, and no longer wishes her any harm. There are a number of affectionate exchanges between them, and moments of genuine feeling in the film, and I began to feel hopeful for the end, but it all quickly disintegrates into a final climatic confrontation and the predictable Hollywood action film ending.

Angelina Jolie manages to look very much like the evil fairy created by Disney animators, and her performance as a woman scorned and betrayed is compelling and evocative. There are moments, however, where she falters a little, such as the aforementioned christening scene, where she is expected to play, for a few minutes, a character from a 50s film instead of her own, which is, as demonstrated by the film, quite different from the one with which we are familiar. Also, in the scene where she finds her wings taken from her by her lover, she cries out with the appropriate shock and horror, but I found absent the anguish and woe at this realisation which is there in a similar scene in Rust and Bone, where Marion Cotillard wakes up to find that her legs have been removed. That scene and her reaction cannot easily be forgotten, but the scene in this film is undistinguished in comparison. Ms Jolie and her makeup artist, though, are operating on a level more intent on showing the grimness of the story than the director, the production designers, the composer and other cast members. She wears a lot of black, a lot of lipstick, large curving horns and vast wings that blow back any approaching foe with a single flap. From the scenes showing her chilling vindictiveness to the rather tender moments, Ms Jolie carries the film on her shoulders without support, or need of it, from any other character or crew member.

The wonderful visual elements and central performance, and few good scenes, unfortunately do not save this film from its weak plot and moments of blandness and insipid dialogue and supporting characters. In the end, here is just one more CGI blockbuster to join the Hollywood multitude of ultimately forgettable films.

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