Thursday, May 29, 2014

“Maleficent” – The newest Disney princess?

Going into Maleficent, I was fully prepared to watch a movie aimed at kids in which Angelina Jolie (playing Maleficent) would be the worst component of the film. I’ve made no secret of my opinion of her acting abilities and the previews I had seen for Maleficent provided more evidence to support my case. It also doesn’t help that her entire filmography is a list of mediocre to terrible movies (not counting animated films). That’s not just me saying that; just search her name on Rotten Tomatoes and you can see how lopsided the critical reception is of all her films. Imagine my surprise in discovering she was actually decent in Maleficent even though the screenplay was one giant turd.

(Spoilers coming. This is going to be like a Disney ride where we go through the entire story, but instead of singing animatronic animals, I point out how much stupidity was included. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

The first thing you need to know is that the trailers are outright lying to you. This isn’t a movie about the evil Maleficent and how she became evil; it’s about the completely misunderstood Maleficent who just goes through a dark spell for a while. Political correctness has run so far amok that we can’t even have villains who are just plain evil anymore. Now that Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the East have been properly neutered, don’t be surprised at future movies where Hans Gruber is really a Robin Hood type of thief and Freddy Kruger was really just the sandman being forced against his will to murder children.

The ride, er…film, begins with a narrator telling us that there are two realms – the human realm and the fair peoples’ realm (only ever referred to as the moors) – and that they have fought many wars. The narrator also tells us about a young fairy with a pure heart named Maleficent. She heals trees, has mud fights with river-pigs, and flies around with nary a worry on giant feathered wings. Until, one day, a human peasant boy (Stefan) is caught stealing a rock (it looked like a chunk of quartz) from the river and Maleficent befriends him. They spend the next few years falling in love, but Stefan eventually leaves her to pursue his goal of world domination. Seriously – he wants to be king and somehow goes from homeless, parentless peasant to king’s assistant, sans any explanation. Anyway, the current king has decided to attack the fair peoples again to “take their treasures for my kingdom.” We are never told what treasures he is after, just that he wants them. It’s painfully obvious that this is another misplaced humans-are-destroying-the-environment schtick, but it’s also the sole reason given for the entire human race being evil. Lazy doesn’t even being to describe how pathetic a motivation that is.

Maleficent sees the king and his army coming and rallies a frightening array of tree monsters and gigantic vine creatures to thwart them. Now, even though the narrator made a point of telling us that Maleficent is the most powerful of all the fairies (magically speaking), she leads the counter attack by flying into the groups of men with pointy objects, punching them with her wings. Why isn’t she simply flying over them and using her magic to defeat them while the creatures slaughter the rest? Good question – and one you will find yourself asking again later in the movie. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was consistent, but there’s a scene in the middle of the film where she defeats several soldiers with magic alone, simply by waving her fingers a little bit.

Anyway, after their defeat, the king tells some dudes and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) that whoever brings him back the head of Maleficent will be the next king. Using his relationship to get close to her, Stefan drugs Maleficent with the intention of killing her and fulfilling his dream. In a fit of conscience, he cuts her wings off instead and presents them to the king. Apparently, the king was only kidding about wanting the head and crowns Stefan the new king. Maleficent wakes to find her wings gone and, POOF, now she’s evil and crowns herself queen of the moors, even though the narrator said they never needed a ruler and have no reason to need one now.

At this point, the film plows into the Sleeping Beauty we all remember – princess Aurora is born (to Stefan), the red, green, and blue fairies show up to bestow their gifts, and Maleficent crashes the party to curse the princess with the exact curse from the animated Sleeping Beauty. It happens the same way as before, except with one major change – instead of the third fairy adding the “she can be awoken by true love’s kiss,” Maleficent adds it. Bwaaaa!? Hold on – it gets dumber.

Even though Maleficent promised that Aurora would be safe until her sixteenth birthday, Stefan orders the three fairies to raise Aurora in hiding somewhere in the forest. Um, why? And, hiding from whom? And why are the fairies complete idiots? That’s right, the fairies have no idea how to raise a child and are portrayed as complete nitwits who spend their time bickering with each other. After less than a day of this, Maleficent takes it upon herself to feed the baby and ensure the three nitwits don’t accidentally kill Aurora (Maleficent will literally verbalize that last bit). By now, if you haven’t figured out where this movie is heading, you are as naïve as the three nitwits.

The middle part of the movie drags on with Maleficent playing pranks on the fairies while simultaneously caring for Aurora, beating us over the head with the foregone conclusion that Maleficent will turn back to the light side of the force. Not that she ever comes close to full evil (or malevolence) anyway; the worst thing she does is curse the baby as an act of revenge for Stefan betraying her. Meanwhile, Stefan is convinced that Maleficent will return and has ordered his people to construct a tangle of iron thorns around the castle to keep her out. Why iron? Oh, did I forget to mention that bit of idiocy? We learn early in the movie that iron burns fairies when it touches them. No, it doesn’t negate their magic, just burns them. Yes, this comes back later.

By the time the day of reckoning draws near, Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Maleficent have grown very close; Aurora wanting to live in the moors and believing Maleficent is her fairy godmother. Is that adorable or what (I think I misspelled that word – it’s actually spelled nauseous)? Maleficent tries to lift the curse, but can’t because then the movie would be over.

The day before Aurora’s birthday, the fairies complete their ineptitude by revealing to Aurora who Aurora really is and the curse that’s been placed on her. Aurora confronts Maleficent, throws a quick tantrum, and rides to the castle where Stefan immediately imprisons her. Rather than immediately go after Aurora to explain herself, she ponders just long enough to be too late to keep Aurora from fulfilling the curse and falling asleep because then the movie would be over.

Not to worry, Maleficent finds Prince Philip (yep, that Prince Philip), puts him into a hovering sleep (it’s exactly what you are picturing), and sneaks into the castle to awaken Aurora (I guess Stefan was right, but only accidentally). I won’t tell you which one of them awakens the princess, but if you say Philip you’re a moron.

Now, instead of sneaking back out the way they came, Maleficent decides to take a short cut through the throne room. Really? I mean…REALLY? They don’t even hug the walls; they literally walk to the middle of the room and stop. This is where the movie goes from head-scratching and annoying to downright dumb (Before I go on, I should mention that Maleficent has a lackey, Diaval (Sam Riley), who started out as a crow, but is constantly being transformed from by Maleficent to a human and various other animals, and is with her in the castle). An iron net falls on Maleficent and she is burned to a crisp because…iron. Just kidding because then the movie would be over. Instead, she gets a burn on her face and turns Diaval into a fire-breathing dragon, removing any idea you might have had that the iron might also prevent her magic from working and causing you to ask the question “why doesn’t she just use her magic to throw off the net?” After the dragon removes the net (shaking my head in pain at this point), it starts breathing fire at all of the soldiers and killing exactly none of them. Still refusing to use more magic (the net’s not even on her at this point), Maleficent is surrounded by soldiers wielding giant iron shields and Diaval has been taken down by guys who are really good at throwing chain lassoes. Stefan bursts into the ring of soldiers and starts trying to kill Maleficent, even though his daughter IS AWAKE AND STANDING RIGHT THERE. If you thought Stefan was going to have one last burst of conscience or reasoning you would be a far better writer than Linda Woolverton (the only credited screenwriter).

While this is going on, Aurora races to a random room that just so happens to house a glass frame encasing Maleficent’s wings. Aurora quickly knocks over the frame, shattering the glass, and the wings fly up and reconnect to Maleficent. Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!!! Her wings have been alive this entire time!? And they are really, really strong (Maleficent explained this to Aurora earlier in the film when Aurora asked about them) and didn’t just knock the case over on their own and fly back to Maleficent as soon as the drugs wore off? Was I on drugs?

Now made whole again, Maleficent continues to fight as if magic is against the rules and continues to wing-punch her adversaries, eventually flying out a window with a chain wrapped around her leg and Stefan hanging on to it. She flies up to a tall tower, chokes him out, then…decides to let him live. Stefan insists that his daughter finish her life without him, so he tackles Maleficent off of the tower, but ends up falling to his death even though Maleficent could have easily saved him by catching him or using her magic. I guess at this point, even she wanted the movie to be over. Maleficent, Aurora, and Diaval go back to live in the moors, Maleficent calmly gives up her pointless throne and is good again (still), and the narrator ends the film by telling us that Maleficent is both hero and villain.

Now that the ride is over, there are several things we can say about this movie. If you were paying attention, you would immediately note that Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty) is a human MacGuffin - she has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever and the curse that is supposed to make her sleep forever ends up only giving her a short nap. You also should have noticed that most of the characters are barely given lip-service, let alone developed into anything worth paying attention to. Philip is relegated to a punch line who has less screen time than mud-flinging river-pigs, the dragon was treated even less ceremonially; added as a throw-in because homages are a must, and the fairies are little more than flying dumbasses providing the kind of comic relief one gets when one’s senile old uncle pees in the dog’s water dish.

The biggest problem my friend and I had with this movie is that we have no idea who the intended audience is. For a PG movie, there is a lot of violence and nearly all of the creatures depicted are the kind that cause young children to have nightmares, including Maleficent, so young children are out. It’s also not going to appeal to most boys because it’s based on Maleficent and boys probably won’t even give it a chance. Adults might go see it out of a sense of nostalgia, but many are going to react the same way as me or feel ripped off that a true villain has been turned into…not a villain.

I know I spent a lot of time on the many, many (many) problems with the story, but there were some positives about the movie. The production value was very good and, if you like imaginative creatures, you will enjoy the visuals throughout the film. Also, as I mentioned before, Jolie was a very passable Maleficent, though not when she was delivering curses or threats to armies. She was much better when she was giving subtle gestures and interacting with Aurora. On the flip side, Jolie’s cheekbone prosthetics are incredibly distracting (and unnecessary) and might cause you to miss some of that. The shame of the whole thing is that there were some really interesting ideas portrayed that could have made for a really good story, but such things as coherent motivations for character’s actions and logical story details would only get in the way of anointing Maleficent the newest Disney Princess.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back. If this were a ride, it would have gone off the tracks and run over countless children, but would have been designed to do exactly that.

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