Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Maleficent: Bad Girls Gone Good Do Not Better Movies Make

Rehabilitating villains is all the rage, and no one does villains like Disney. So it's inevitable that they would try to make one of them a little misunderstood at least. After all, they profited quite a bit after they joined in on poking fun at their own conventions. Unfortunately, the fact that their bad guys tend to be so good at what they do works against them, since it's impossible to make the one they chose sympathetic while still following their own story. After all, it's hard to get audiences to sympathize with someone who curses a baby.

Because while Disney's antagonists may have gotten more complicated over the years, they still firmly remain villains. Movies like “Frozen” thrive on flawed, complex characters. But there's still actually two evildoers in the movie, one of them a very cunning one who spends it hiding in plain sight. But Angelina Jolie, who plays the title character, almost pulls it off.

This Maleficent is the fairy guardian of the magnificent realm of he Moors, a land of magic with inhabitants to match. Humans are forbidden from entering, but they inevitably demand to intrude and exploit the magical paradise. When Maleficent ensures that they fail, thekir dying king promises that the man who kills her will have his crown.

Unfortunately, one of the people who hears this is Maleficent's childhood love Stefan (Sharlto Copley). Corrupted by his own ambition, he manages to drug her, but cannot bear to take her life. Instead, he does something almost as horrific. When Maleficent wakes, she finds that Stefan and her magnificent, feathered wings are gone. Her screams of disbelief, rage, and pain are truly heartbreaking.

Cue the infamous act of revenge.

Usually when a good character goes bad, the story gets interesting. But here that signals the beginning of a downward spiral. Hell, Maleficent actually ends up practically raising Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) herself, since in this version of the Sleeping Beauty, the Three Good Fairies are such incompetent parents that she has to do things like feed her actual food and stop her from falling off a cliff. Of course, she reluctantly bonds with the kid, who actually ends up believing that Maleficent is her fairy godmother.
It's one of the sadder changes from the original story, since Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather were interesting, colorful, active, one might say surprisingly feminist characters. Sure, Aurora was boring and bland. But so was the prince. In the original story, the fairies soften the curse. The fairies hide the princess and raise her. The fairies rescue the prince, save him multiple times, give him very effective weapons, and even guide his sword in the final blow. Is it too much to ask that they be just a little interesting? Or at least competent?

Then there's Princess Aurora herself. Or rather, when she grows up and starts talking. Innocence can be charming, but it very easily becomes cloying. Here it's never anything but that. The sad thing is, you know that Elle Fanning is better than this, especially after her work in “Super 8.” But no talent shines through here.

Furthermore, Disney just has to diverge too much from its own story. Even the way it focuses on the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent rather than Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) is unsatisfying because while it is relatively new, it's still been done before, and done better by Disney itself in movies like “Brave” and yes, “Frozen.”

The effects are astonishing. Jolie reliably makes Maleficent both larger than life and a character worth caring about with some genuinely affecting moments. This Maleficent would be better served by her own independent story. Same character, different name, similar circumstances, and she could soar, not just literally but figuratively too.

If only it followed through on its own talking points. “Maleficent” is really about power, and what it does to those who have it. Stefan's love of it causes him to betray his childhood love, and the brutal act resembles a rape scene where her body is violated for his own gain. It is her resulting loss of power that pushes her into darkness, not the loss of her heart. Their relationship's tragic ending would be all the more poignant if Stefan's journey were shown rather than only his destination. It is ironic, really, that he is transformed into the kind of one-dimensional villain that she once was.

Classic, dastardly villains can be redeemed. Take the play “Wicked” for example. But there's a reason most of it takes place before Dorothy arrives. Similarly, “Maleficent” is best before the princess is born. The end result is passable, but only just, and it detracts instead of adding to one of Disney's best villains. Maybe there'll be better luck next time, but I genuinely hope there won't be a next time. Their villains are enjoyable when they stay that way. I have no great desire to see them softened and rewritten. Save the misunderstood material for the new, and allow the old to plot and cackle away.

Grade: C-

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