Sunday, June 1, 2014

Maleficent: Twisted and Dark -- But All In Good Humor

Maleficent - Angelina Jolie Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
E very so often, a scriptwriter, or producer or a director feels the need to remake and rewrite a story that has already embedded itself in pop-culture, and that is the case of "Sleeping Beauty.”  Executive Producer Angelina Jolie ("Salt," "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" "Beowulf") stars in this gorgeous rendering of the Giambattista Basile of a girl who is cursed with the magical variety of trypanosomiasis.  Teaming up with veteran Disney Producer Don Hahn ("The Lion King" (1994), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)) to retell and reimagine the classic tale of "Sleeping Beauty."  The classic stories that we learned and loved as children, and especially via Uncle Walt's Disney's studios, we can be sure we are getting the "family" version of these European folktales.  Keeping with the trend of giving our childhood monsters and villain’s motivation for their evilness, the filmmaker’s goal is to show us the other side of the story.  Angelina Jolie plays the Fairy Queen Maleficent, while Sharlto Copley ("District 9," "Elysium," "Europa Report") stars as King Stefan, and Elle Fanning ("Babel," "Super 8") is the beautiful “La Belle au bois dormant."  Being that "Maleficent" is a Walt Disney Studios distribution, the MPAA gave it a PG rating, and it runs just over an hour and a half.

The story of "Sleeping Beauty" is not quite the true story we heard as children.  That is what the narrator is tells us at the beginning of the film.  The voice speaks of the divide between two kingdoms.  The first is the kingdom of man, with its greed and lust, and the kingdom of the fairies in the moors...  I am always wary of films that start with long expositions.  "Maleficent" does exactly that and my first reaction was to sigh.  I then looked to my left at the kid in the seat next to me, and realized that this story telling method is for the children, not so much for the adults.  I am sure even the young kids who have come to see film with their parents have already seen the Disney's 1959 animated take on the Charles Perrault story from a collection of compiled folktales.  Thus, I think the story-telling motif at the beginning serves the purpose for the children to re-align their concept of the story.  

Maleficent - Fairy Folk | A Constantly Racing Mind

First time director Robert Stromberg ("Pan's Labyrinth," "The Chronicles of Riddick," "2012," "Life of Pi") drops us into the fairy world which is full of beautiful colors, grand landscapes, and the intriguing Isobelle Molloy as the young fairy Maleficent.  The first twenty minutes or so focus on setting up who the character of Maleficent was "before the fall."  Sweet and free-spirited she flies through the moors with her beautiful set of brown horned wings and introduces the audience to the various gnomes, talking frogs, sprites and the talking and walking trees.  Molloy's portrayal as the young naive and innocent fairy queen is in sharp contrast to the beautiful and malevolent adult fairy that she will become.  Similar in fashion to "Oz the Great and Powerful," we see our main character as she was before a man hurt her and woe to those who forget the axiom, "Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn."  The creatures of the moors do not allow men to enter their land; however, they make one exception.  The trees catch a young Stephan (Michael Higgins) stealing from their land.  Maleficent forgives the boy and allows the boy to go on his way.  We see the two become friends and then more.  When Maleficent turns 16, Stefan gives her what he called "true loves kiss."  We all know from "The Princess Bride," there is nothing more potent than true love.  

As the years go by, Stephan returns to the lands of man and pursues his goal of sitting on the throne of the kingdom of men.  The ways of men are greed and desire.  King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) and his horsemen and infantry, lay siege to the moors and now an adult Maleficent comes to defend the creatures of fairyland.  In a short battle scene, reminiscent of "The Lord of the Rings," the tree giants and Maleficent take on the army and mortally wound the king.  In an earlier scene with young Stefan, we find that Maleficent's weakness is iron as it burns her.  She too is wounded when she touches the king's amour.  Jolie's introduction at the beginning of this scene is regal and visually stunning.  Stromberg's strength is his visual style, as he was a visual artist in many fantasy films in the last two decades.  Although there is plenty of action in "Maleficent," there are parts where the pacing is uneven and even slow.  

Maleficent - Stefan and Maleficent | A Constantly Racing Mind

The story follows as the dying king promises the kingdom to whomever vanquishes Maleficent and avenges his death. Stefan (Copley) enters the moors to warn Maleficent about the king and his bounty, and the two renew their friendship.  In this film, we see Copley's range of characters throughout this film, from a seemingly innocent individual as in "Distrct Nine," to the crazed, paranoid, fighter from "Elysium."  After drugging his friend, Stefan cannot bring himself to kill her, but instead does something worse; he takes her wings.  By leaving her alive but taking her wings, Stefan commits a very personal crime against Maleficent, so much so, that her grief and agony is just as great.  So far the themes presented have to do with man verses nature, or symbolically the iron swords and the ways of men represent industrialism and a sort of sexism, while the fairy folk are the ancient innocent pagan tradition.  Stefan becomes king and Maleficent turns her hurt, her anger, and her pain into a force for vengeance.  Without wings she must walk.  She saves a raven that she turns into a human.  The raven name is Diaval (diablo?) played by Sam Riley.  Now with the prerequisite faithful animal servant (or familiar) the villain can go on her way and do her wicked deeds.  

Maleficent - Diaval and Maleficent | A Constantly Racing Mind

Diaval is Maleficent's eyes and ears, and one day he reports that the king and queen have a new child, a girl.  As in the 1959, Disney animated version, three fairies show up to give the child some fairy gifts.  Introduced earlier in the film, the three fairies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) , Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) each give the child a gift, the uninvited Maleficent shows up in all her dark regal glory.  It is hard to present the character of Maleficent as evil when Jolie is so beautiful, but somehow it works.  The film keeps the essential storyline of the spinning wheel and the needle.  However, instead of cursing the child to die on her 16th birthday, it is Maleficent's curse that will cause her to sleep.  A warning about curses; be careful what you wish for.  The Fairy Queen adds "...and nothing can reverse this curse."  

Maleficent - Elle Fanning as Aurora | A Constantly Racing Mind
The three fairies trying to take care of a child is adorable, the way Maleficent and Diaval watch over the baby is cute, and the emergence of Aurora as a delicate and graceful young woman is enchanting.  Elle Fanning is everything that Charles Perrault's fairies endowed his storybook princess with.  She is beautiful, angelic, and graceful, and she displays these qualities to the audience and to Maleficent, whom she thinks is her fairy godmother.  Played with a fresh and happy naiveté, Fanning’s portrayal brings new life to a character that has always been a bit too syrupy, but without the toothache.  When Elle and Angelina are on screen, their performances together are at times sentimental and moving  This adaptation of "Sleeping Beauty" greatly reduces the role of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) to the point of three or short scenes and in two of them, he is asleep. 

As Angelina Jolie plays her character with a dark, twisted villainy, Sharlto Copely plays his even darker and more twisted as he descends into torment because of what he did to his childhood friend, and the ruin he brought to the women in his life.  He still loves Maleficent, and hates himself.  He shuts himself in a room rambling to himself as he "talks" to Maleficent's wings, in the meantime his wife dies, his child has fallen to the curse of sleep, and the now he wants is revenge.  Jolie's character is different; her evilness is tempered with a bit of humor, and is much more sentimental than her character's predecessors.  The ending is different than what we remember, and thus the exposition at the beginning.

Maleficent -Sharlto Copley as King Stefan | A Constantly Racing Mind
The cinematography is splendid, and the visual effects (CGI) are good through most of the film, but sometimes, draw away from the story.  James Newton Howard's score is elegant and majestic.  Nobody breaks into song, however, Lana Del Rey's rendition of Sammy Fain and Jack Lawrence's "Once Upon A Dream" is hauntingly gorgeous.  Linda Woolverton's story has its own twists and turns, as did the stories of "Briar Rose" and "Sleeping Beauty" of the Brothers Grimm who rewrote many Charles Perrault's folktales who in turn took from 16th century poet Giambattista Basile.  Woolverton's changes to the storyline bring it out of the dark and into a new light.  As we all know, Disney stories usually have a dark background.  Uncle Walt sanitized the stories and brought them into line with socio-economic and cultural norms of the times.  Woolverton takes the focus from "the heroes" of the story and in a feminist sort of way puts it directly on the tough as nails, gorgeous badass that is Jolie.  Best of all, Woolverton does away with the absurd romantic notion of love at first sight, and shows the truth; that love develops over time and is cemented by shared interests and respect.

I am not usually fond of Origin-Stories, or Dark Reboots, however; at times, I have been pleasantly surprised.  Calling this story a deviation from the now nostalgic stories we grew up is ridiculous.  Steven Ford of the Orlando Sentinel explains very well the metamorphosis of this story. The story is fine and will entertain children for many years to come.  If anything, deviations in classic stories will open up people’s minds and give new perspectives to how we look at the world.  Either on the big screen or on DVD or Blu-ray, "Maleficent" is a fun entertaining film that will not replace the Disney classics, but will still keep families happy and entertained.

Movie Data

Genre: Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Romance
Year:  2014
Staring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Isobelle Molloy
Director: Robert Stromberg
Producer(s): Joe Roth
Writer: Linda Woolverton, Charles Perrault, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, (Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, Milt Banta)
Rating: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date:  5/30/2014

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