Monday, July 7, 2014

Dream Factory: Maleficent

Director: Robert Stromberg
Original release date: Walt Disney Pictures 2014 
Rating: PG

Summary from Rotten Tomatoes: Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king's newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.

As both a fan of fairy tales and Disney villains, I was excited when Maleficent was first announced a few years ago, albeit apprehensive given the last few live-action films released by Disney.  And while the critics have given mostly mixed reviews to Maleficent, I thought there were some great elements in it that just needed to be elaborated upon.

One of my major concerns, other than the story itself, was the special effects.  In recent years, there has been an increasingly apparent shift away from practical effects towards CG ones.  Sometimes those CG effects blend seamlessly with the live-action shots, while more frequently they are obvious and seem hollow.  The effects here are somewhere in the middle ground.  They're not perfect, but they're also not shoddy.  Being a practical effects enthusiast, I would have preferred to see the faerie realm as depicted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, but considering that the majority of creatures were CG, they still managed to convey themselves as creatures with souls.

Fans of Eleanor Audley's portrayal may be a bit disappointed, as Angelina Jolie creates her own interpretation of the character for the most part.  The only Audley-esque scene is the christening of Aurora, which replicates much of the dialogue from the 1959 film.  Those expecting a rehash of the animated film from Maleficent's perspective will be surprised, as much of the latter half of the film is completely different, rather than just presented from a different viewpoint.

Some things worked well, while others did not, though at the risk of spoiling things for those who haven't seen the film, I won't elaborate.  Maleficent's motivation for revenge was justified, but in her rage, she harmed those who were innocent of the betrayal.  I thought this was portrayed very realistically and greatly enjoyed Maleficent's quest for redemption through her role as "fairy godmother."  Both she and Aurora were much more complex characters here than in the 1959 film, while the three "good fairies" were relegated to the role of comic relief.

While I applaud the attempt at not only introducing feminist themes to the work, but also the parallelism of the sleeping victims (Maleficent and Aurora), I found some of the narrative problematic.  Namely, the lack of positive male characters.  It's important that when empowering female characters, we don't villainize the male ones, but that's what happened here.  I'm not trying to excuse the actions of Stefan, as they were abhorrent.  I'm just pointing out that the film would have been more balanced if there were a good male to balance out Stefan's evil.  I think they attempted that with Philip (attempted being the operative word), but he's barely in the film so he doesn't do much to counteract Stefan.  I should note that I'm also not calling for Philip (or another male) to be the hero.  Aurora and Maleficent do a fine job of thwarting the king themselves.  I just want balance in the portrayals of characters of both sexes.

All in all, an enjoyable attempt to retell a classic fairy tale from a different perspective, even if it has its flaws.

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