The Disney live-action film Maleficent has been in theaters for about a week now, and has generated a substantial amount of controversy among reviewers. While it’s been a clear box office success, taking in nearly $70 million in its first week, critics have been divided almost exactly in half, according to RottenTomatoes.com, with an aggregate rating among critics right at 50%. So in a first for a DISDads movie review, we present this DISDad review in point-counterpoint format.
|by DisDadIL||by Aaron Rittmaster|
|For months and months before the 2014 summer movie season began, Disney waged a marketing blitz that was both subtle and enticing, displaying the haunting eyes and strong cheekbones of Angelina Jolie as the title character, Maleficent. The trailers played on everyone’s memories and love of that iconic Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty. And why not? Everyone remembers Maleficent, her horns, her thorns, her raven, and her stint as a fire-breathing dragon from hell. |
Thankfully, Disney has taken a new twist on old tales, as well as on some of its own past storylines, and with the charm and enrapturing beauty of Jolie, draws us in to the story of how one of the greatest Disney villains came to be.
A narrator with aged voice begins the tale of Maleficent as a young child, where two kingdoms, one of man and one of magic, exist side by side. As Maleficent grows, she meets up with a young boy from the kingdom. At this point, there is a bit of teen angst that seems rather forced and yet quite important. Sadly, the movie rushes through certain backstory plot points with a few sentences, instead of giving effect to the storytelling that movies are meant to give. This is one big drawback of the movie, the narration jumps. Since the movie is only 97 minutes long, it seems that Disney sought to save money or capitalize on the short attention spans of youth in making the movie a typical feature length. The backstory is given somewhat short shrift as a result of these narrative jumps.
|If you are a returning visitor to DISDads.com, you probably know that I have been a frequent critic of the way that Disney has taken to marketing its films. While the marketing effort for Maleficent has been largely successful at driving crowds to the theaters, once again the marketing campaign has done a disservice to the film it was intended to support. Disney has gone out of their way to market Maleficent by linking it to our collective memories of the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty - from the haunting Lana del Rey version of Once Upon a Dream to the trailer voice-overs promising the "truth" of the story, from Maleficent's side.
But while it is helpful to link Maleficent to the Sleeping Beauty story, because it does provide some context for the character, this isn't really a Sleeping Beauty-derivative film. Rather, it's an entirely different story. Maleficent isn't about justifying the behavior of the Maleficent character in the classic story. Rather, it's telling a new story that challenges viewers to forget the previous version and consider an entirely different narrative. The Maleficent of this new movie is not the inherently evil personification of envy from Sleeping Beauty (which is why her face is not Wicked Witch of the West green). Instead of a stock character foil for King Stefan and Prince Phillip, this Maleficent is a fully-realized primary character, with depth and range - and ultimately the ability to tell a much more fulfilling story.
|by DisDadIL||by Aaron Rittmaster|
|As with any story, there has to be a reason why Maleficent is evil. In Sleeping Beauty, she is already evil and she is quite ticked off that she was not invited to the party. In Maleficent, we are only given a slight glimpse as to why she turns against the human kingdom. There is a war, and it is overly short. It also looks like it came from the cutting room floor of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Two Towers. Even the narrator fails to give a decent enough explanation for the war. |
Regardless, Maleficent triumphs over the kingdom of men with her magical kin. The king, as he lay dying, demands to be avenged. So, here is where a major story shift occurs, and could have soared to fantastic storytelling heights. A man who knew Maleficent as a boy uses his connection to gain the advantage and take a prize for his dying king, resulting in the throne being gifted to him.
Eventually, Maleficent learns to deal with her loss and even takes on a familiar pet. However, this time, her pet can talk back and, though his name has changed, he actually becomes her Jiminy Cricket. Thorns appear to protect her magical kingdom, and Maleficent broods and stews and a darkness falls over the moors.
When Aurora is born, the christening party is almost shot for shot and line for line with Sleeping Beauty. To hear Maleficent repeat those famous lines is chilling, especially with the haunting grace with which Jolie delivers the lines. Little plot landmines are planted in this scene that will come to fruition near the end of the film, but the three fairies, who strangely were renamed too, take Aurora to the cottage in the woods.
In a marvelous twist, Jolie’s Maleficent takes on greater significance to the child Aurora, but still distancing herself from Aurora by referring to the child as “Beastie.” The horror of her vengeful curse is placated by humorous encounters and acts of motherly, or godmotherly, affection at a distance. Again, Jolie shines in these scenes, and the audience is in on the joke, as Maleficent only acts protectively to see her curse come to pass.
In all this time, Maleficent begins to regain much of the good things about her that she lost when the king stole her treasured possession. Thus, a plot landmine explodes, and when she tries to undo her evil deed, Maleficent learns that even she cannot overpower herself.
So, at some point, the audience is looking for Prince Phillip, who appears on cue and enamors the young princess. However, there are no songs. Not a single song. No immediately falling in love with someone that the princess has just met (though she is smitten). That king that gained the throne through treachery has gone mad with fear of Maleficent, wherein a plot landmine from the beginning of the movie explodes and he sets an iron-laden trap for Maleficent.
Aurora pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, drawn in by the curse’s own magical impulse and enters her sleep like death. Now true love’s kiss does awaken her, but it is not the kiss one would have expected, and yet the audience, overly cued into the issue, knows who must give the kiss way before the scene happens in the movie.
As if to make up for this, Disney ends the movie with a fight in the castle and a dragon and a return of Maleficent to her former glory. The point of the story, as funneled through the narrator, is that the story you know about Maleficent was told from the wrong perspective. While the plot points and narratives are strong critiques, this is a great movie when you let go of those. Critics have been harsh because of that, but moviegoers have spoken and the words are clear – Make movies with new spins on old tales. And on that Disney delivered and Jolie handed us the greatest antihero performance. She melts through the scenery and the dialogue in a way that pulls the audience’s heart into hers and allows them to see where she has been and what she must do to return.
2.5 out 4 stars.
|I thought the movie did a perfectly reasonable job of setting up the background to Maleficent's curse. I don't think it's fair to suggest that Maleficent is "evil" - certainly not in the sense that the classic Sleeping Beauty story treats her as evil incarnate. I don't even agree that it's accurate to say that Maleficent "turns against the human kingdom." It really seemed like it was the other way around to me.
Maleficent's back story is primarily focused on her relationship with Stefan - a peasant boy who is intrigued by the fairies home in the moors. When Stefan and Maleficent were young the fairies' moor and the human kingdom coexisted in wary truce. The fairies stay in the moor, the humans have their kingdom, and neither intrudes on the other.
While Sean sees the ensuing teen friendship-bordering-on-romance to be forced, to me it is the very heart of Maleficent's story. The relationship that Stefan and Maleficent build by frolicking together in their teen years teaches each about the other's world. To this point in the movie, they appear to be on the verge of building a bridge between the fairy and human worlds.
But King Henry is fearful of the fairies' power. He raises up an army to which Philip is presumably conscripted, as a lowly peasant. The battle scene IS short, and a bit campy for my taste. But Henry's army is routed. The fairies defend the moor led by their obviously most-powerful member - Maleficent.
After being routed, King Henry is left angry and childless. He promises his throne to whomever can bring him evidence that Maleficent has been killed. The movie implies that either others tried and failed, or were simply to terrified to try. But Stefan the peasant sees opportunity. For in Maleficent, the motivating emotion is an entirely different kind of envy. Stefan is envious of money and power. So Stefan takes advantage of his relationship with Maleficent. Under the guise of renewing their friendship, Stefan takes advantage of Maleficent, drugging her and tearing from her that which she treasured most and a font of her power. While this scene was carefully shot to imply the horror of what was happening, instead of showing the gore, it had the distinctly powerful and uncomfortable feeling of watching a date-rape unfold.
While Maleficent seethes with rage at what was stolen from her, and sets about asserting her dominance over the fairy moor in an effort to ensure that it will remain safe from the human kingdom, Philip presents his trophy at the castle and realizes his greedy goals. He is crowned king, marries, and his wife gives birth to a baby girl. The scene at the christening does mirror the Sleeping Beauty scene carefully. The fairies that have come to offer blessings to Aurora are fairy rebels, rather than ordinary guests. And Maleficent's question about having been left of the guest list is more sarcastic than envious in this story. Stefan took something from Maleficent, and Maleficent means to take something of equal importance from Stefan. Her curse upon Aurora is intended to terrorize Stefan and its threat succeeds in slowly driving Stefan mad.
Stefan sends Aurora off to be "protected" by the rebel fairies. But while the Sleeping Beauty fairies were endearingly in over their heads, especially without magic, the rebel fairies are bumbling fools (to put it mildly).
For the most part, I agree with Sean's assessment of this next part of the film. I would only add that the key element here is that Aurora clearly has inherited her father's curiosity about and affinity for the moors. Engaging with this human child who delights in the fairy world softens Maleficent's heart.
I won't give away the ending of the film. But I will comment that this ending - and the ways in which Maleficent grows and changes from the time that Aurora starts referring to Maleficent as her "fairy godmother" until the end of the film are what make this movie a superior film to Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty is a static story. No one learns anything. No one changes. Even the good vs. evil battle is, for all its spectacle, ultimately pretty boring. Yes, yes, envy is a terrible thing. And the fairytale penalty for a bad thing is death by sword of the righteous.
But Maleficent is a much more powerful, richer, deeper story. Stefan suffers a blow when Aurora is cursed by Maleficent, but he never changes and never adapts. He just doubles down on the striving for power. Maleficent, after being subjected to a loss, remains open to change. She develops compassion, nurturing instincts, even love for a human being. This makes Maleficent, ultimately, a much more fulfilling protagonist than Price Philip. (And it doesn't hurt that Aurora plays a much more active role in this story than in the one that bears her own nickname).
I watched in 3D, but found most of the 3D scenes to be completely superfluous. There are some tremendous performances in this movie - in addition to Jolie, Elle Fanning is fantastic as Aurora and Sam Riley is excellent as Maleficent's "pet" Diaval.
3.5 out of 4 stars
(Note: While this movie is rated PG, and is carefully shot and edited to minimize gore, some scenes were still too scary for my 7-year-old son's taste).