Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Maleficent (2014)

Wicked has an awful lot to answer for these days. The novel that created a back-story for the Wicked Witch of the West and went on to become a runaway success as a stage show has started something of a trend in Hollywood. After last year’s disappointing Oz: the Great and Powerful attempted to explain the origin of the great wizard, Disney have set another much loved family film in their sights. Their big live-action blockbuster Maleficent is the long-awaited rewriting of Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the perspective of the terrifying and terrible witch whose spell sent Aurora to her rest. 

It’s been 55 years since Disney first introduced audiences to the villainous Maleficent in their animated adaptation of Sleeping Beauty and apparently they have decided it was time to rewrite history. In their big live-action blockbuster, the company are willing to let us into the untold story of the fairy who quite probably dominated the nightmares of young children the world over. After all, until Frozen came out last year and blurred the lines, the distinction between good and evil was always crystal clear in the studio’s offerings. Maleficent continues the trend by recreating one of the ultimate forces for evil as a much more ambiguous being.

We first meet the titular fairy as a young girl (Ella Purnell) whose main concern is keeping the magical inhabitants of her home happy and safe from the humans who are intent on regaining their land. Unfortunately, Maleficent meets a boy and... well you can guess the rest.  Quickly Mal is swearing vengeance in a scene played out pretty identically to the original film. The new King’s (Sharlto Copely) first born daughter will, on her 16th birthday, prick her finger and fall into an eternal sleep.

Aurora (Elle Fanning) is sent into hiding to be watched by three good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) but in the film’s big twist it is actually Maleficent herself who must protect the child to ensure she survives to the age at which the curse will strike. Quite frankly, the plot from this point is stupid, lazy and dull. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for the underlying feminist message at the core of Maleficent but I have to admit that it feels pretty outrageous to take this character and make her a mothering presence in Aurora’s life.

I mean this is a character whose name literally means she is capable of producing evil and she is only ever seen doing one bad deed. This is not the original story being told from a different viewpoint this is a different and much less interesting tale. I can only assume that the main character’s name was bestowed upon her as some sort of ironic nickname (you know like really tall people called Tiny and stuff) because the fairy we see on screen is anything but malevolent.

She is, however, magnificent. This marks Angelina Jolie’s first appearance on screen in about four years and she cuts a striking figure thanks to her fetish horns, huge wings and Lady Gaga inspired cheekbones. Jolie is the perfect actress to bring Maleficent to life but the script doesn’t give her anywhere to take the character. No matter what you may have thought about his reimagining of Alice in Wonderland back in 2011, it’s easy to see that this actress, in this costume would have been better off in the strange and darker hands of Tim Burton. The script places its main character in a spectator role and gives her no spark, humour or intensity to make her anywhere near as memorable her animated predecessor. Quite frankly, it is only because the supporting characters are even less inspiring that Maleficent doesn’t disappear completely within her own film.

I understand what Linda Woolverton is attempting to do with the script and the character but there is just little to get excited about. Something that is most probably indebted to the likes of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is just a horrible imitation (and I didn’t even really enjoy reading TBC at uni). The narrative is patchy and full of contradictions and plot-holes. Woolverton also places too much importance on unnecessary references to the original story. If she were so intent on rewriting the tale as a whole then why bother shoehorning in Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) for a whole four minutes or whatever?

I also can’t help but feel that certain clich├ęs just weaken the intended feminist message at its heart. I mean if you wanted to highlight the importance and strength of female relationships then why have every event hinge on the title character getting her heartbroken? I realise “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” but the image of a powerful woman threatening a child because a boy didn’t love her enough isn’t something I feel too comfortable with.

As someone who was really looking forward to this, I found almost everything about the film was disappointing. The cast just don’t have the energy or material to give the audience anything at all. Elle Fanning is horribly forgettable and Sharlto Copely has an insufferably terrible Scottish accent. There is the brief respite in the interaction between the good fairies but you will still have the unshakeable feeling that in the hands of better filmmakers even this could have been more joyous.

That’s not to say there is no fun to be found in Maleficent. Director Robert Stromberg is better known thanks to his production design on Alice in Wonderland and Oz: the Great and Powerful. This is his first time in the director’s chair and you can tell. Part of the reason the production doesn’t seem as slick as it could have is because Stromberg appears to be creating it from the viewpoint of a production designer. The magical world he has created is incredibly detailed and offers the same disappointing lifelessness that caused problems in Oz. There is so much going on visually that is feels as though you are sat starring into the sun and waiting for your eyes to adjust. I can’t say I was a complete fan of Stromberg’s reliance on CGI to create some wonder in his story, especially when it came as the expense of his characters and narrative. Even the positive themes that Copely is ultimately trying to convey are pushed to one side in order to sneak in another human/fairy showdown.

Stromberg owes an awful lot to Angelina Jolie for making this film such a success. It her resilience and sheer determination that ensure this otherwise flaccid representation of a well-known character is even the slightest bit memorable:  if only her role had been given even half the amount of planning as her costume had. If Maleficent is supposed to be the truth behind the lies at the heart of Sleeping Beauty then I for one would much prefer to continue living in ignorance. 

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