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Maleficent

Maleficent

Jeez, be careful around those cheekbones, you could lose a
finger if you're not careful.

2014

dir: John Stromberg

We need new, 3D movie reinterpretations of classic fairy tales the way that we need a gigantic meteor to crash into the planet, extinguishing all life as we know it: we don’t, not that much.

When they bring out these new tellings of ‘classic’ tales, basically it’s little more than an excuse to have big battle scenes that look like the rare bits of Lord of the Rings battle scenes that editors were able to cut and Peter Jackson was able to let go of without crying. Of course that never happens, because he’s never cut anything ever, because anything and everything he’s ever filmed has been great and needs to be seen by everyone. But I truly do sometimes find it hilarious to see battle scenes under a darkened sky, where some big thing, like a tree-like thing, or a rocky tree-like thing, slaps around a whole bunch of dudes in armour, and it looks like twenty other movies I’ve seen in the last bunch of years.

You never knew it, but fairy tales as diverse as Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Noah, Jack and the Beanstalk, and now Sleeping bloody Beauty all had, way back when they were dreamed up by the opium users who thought of them, all of them were crying out for the time hundreds or thousands of years hence when computers could be used to really bring the stories to life by computer generating vast armies to die bloodlessly in pursuit of a glass slipper or a kiss from some aquatic desperado.

I mean, really, Snow White wasn’t Snow White until she could don a suit of armour and ride into battle like she was the second coming of Joan of Arc and the first coming of Brienne of Tarth in Snow White and the Hunstman.

At the very least this flick makes no bones about changing the story (it’s not as if anyone really needs a traditional telling of Sleeping Beauty ever again: too pervy, too boring). It’s the story of the villain more than Sleeping Beauty herself, and that’s fine. Not only is the ‘villain’ far more interesting than the alleged heroine here: the heroine and virtually everyone else in the kingdom are idiots. Only the magnificent Maleficent is really worthy of our attention.

The image of the malevolent and monstrous Maleficent is one deeply engraved upon my psyche, because it was part of the promo on Channel Seven for all things Disney, back when there were only a few channels available, and Disney was this thing you only watched on Sunday nights, an allegedly Wonderful World of.

So, too, during this time did we see this evil sorceress in all her glory, animated in the classic style in a manner that showed they (the Disney animators) always fussed more over the villain’s looks than the normals. She was also, like the evil Queen in Snow White, also a literal femme fatale, perhaps inspired by the noir era, but definitely intended to be evil and sensual at the same time.

Angelina Jolie herself obviously thought she would make a great Maleficent, and who am I to argue? If I had one criticism, and I probably have hundreds, it’s that I would have thought she should have been taller, much taller, to really match the iconic image, or exceed it. Everything else conspires to certainly make her look incredibly arresting as this character. I don’t know how much of it is make-up, latex or CGI, but she certainly looks compelling.

I think the wings were special effects, but you never know with really wealthy people: for all I know the wings and cheekbones were real, but at least the wings were grown from stem cells or from using the organs of third-world children. Maleficent has wings, big bloody wings, and, as a child, she uses them to fly around the moors, where she lives with a whole bunch of other fairy folk and fantastical creatures.

A boy stumbles into her domain, and they become fast, firm friends. Well, they’re kids, so I wouldn’t imply any much more of anything, but she’s, like, Queen of the Fairies, or something, and he’s just some guy called Stefan (played as an adult by Sharlto Copley).

Stefan seems like a nice enough boy, but he is, after all, from the human world. The human world is about power, and greed, and facial hair, whereas Maleficent’s world is about ambling around in nature admiring how awesome nature is, or flying above the clouds. Clearly, her world is superior. Stefan lives in the real world, though, and whatever he might feel for Maleficent and the fantastical cretins of the moors pales into comparison with becoming a king in the ‘real’ world.

In what is becoming a common trope in these kinds of fantasy/fairy tales, you have a major character talking with a Scottish accent. Why? I don’t know. Sharlto Copley is South African, and has a pretty strong Afrikaans accent, but I found it funny that they got him to put on a pretty strong Scottish brogue, one which no-one else in the flick speaks with.

Similarly, the Huntsman of the title in that other recent adaptation that didn’t have Julia Roberts in it (thankfully) also had Chris Hemsworth speaking with a strong Scottish accent. In Hollywood, I think, they’re not entirely sure that Scotland really exists, so it’s become shorthand for the kind of accent men would use in a fantasy film. Because, you know, Scotland isn’t a real place anymore.

He has to make a decision: a decision to put away childish things in order to become a powerful man. The “things” he decides to put aside, violently, in a horrible betrayal and monstrous assault, aren’t really his to give away.

It’s all like it happened just to give the adult Maleficent (obviously played by Angelina Jolie) some serious motivation for revenge. At the very least it makes for a more relatable protagonist than if she just wanted to curse a newborn baby out of spite or envy. I mean, that would just be monstrous, wouldn’t it?

Maleficent curses the child to die upon turning 16, like in all the versions of the story, but it’s somewhat mitigated in that it’s meant to be a ‘sleep’ from which true love’s kiss could potentially wake her. The trick is, since she knows what it’s like to get burned, such a thing doesn’t exist. Because men suck, don’t you know.

Sixteen years could be a very long time for the rest of us to wait in order to exact revenge, but Maleficent is an ethereal and presumably immortal being. She intends to spend all her time stalking the child and insulting her from afar. She spends so much time cataloguing all the child’s obvious deficiencies and defects that she becomes totally obsessed with her, watching her every move, looking after her, protecting her from danger, loving her as much as her bitter, blackened heart will allow.

So here is where the ‘text’ varies so significantly from the original: that no-one, especially not Aurora’s monstrous and delusional father, or the idiot fairies tasked with looking after her in secret, and certainly not some fancypants prince (though a fancypants prince is provided for the story) loves Aurora as much as Maleficent does. No, it’s the villain who regrets the curse she herself placed upon the child, and no-one wants to undo what hatred wrought moreso than she who unleashed it into the world.

Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty of the tale, is played as something of a simpleton by Elle Fanning, who is a wonderful actress usually, but doesn’t have too much to do here other than paste an idiot grin across her goofy features. That’s very unkind, I know, but she is the object of the story (as in every version of the story), not the subject, so it’s Jolie’s performance that matters more.

Mostly you’d think performance pales into comparison with the canvass that is rendered for our cinematic appreciation, and you’d be right in most instances. The visuals are impressive, and the landscape is almost breathtaking. The thing is, though, I can’t really differentiate it from the other fantastical landscapes of any other recent fantasy flicks that have come out. They are all starting to blend in together, perhaps because in a lot of instances they’re being put together by the same people, or special effects people are asking producers “so what do you want it to look like?” and they’re saying “Oh, you know, make it look like Lord of the Rings and Oz the Great and Powerful and the last Snow White film, but with a few little differences. So make it exactly the same but a little different.”

No, it’s not the landscape that stands out, it’s Maleficent. I may not have liked every single thing that happened in the flick, and the resolution at the end seemed awfully convenient, and didn’t even really make sense even in a fantasy / fairy tale flick (I’m referring to what was taken from Maleficent, and how it could just be ‘fixed’ so easily), but her performance, whether she’s whispering insults, or bellowing loudly about the doom she wishes to bring against the world of evil men, towers above all. The flick is worth it just to look at her bizarre, somewhat alien, always arresting face. Everything else they do becomes secondary.

For what it’s worth, the retelling of this tale is transformed enough to make it more contemporary (in that the absurdity of a story where a complete stranger kisses some girl in a coma and its meant to be the solution to all the kingdom’s troubles is ridiculed for the risible concept that it is), which is a more interesting subversion than a bland straight telling of what would otherwise be a pretty lame and boring central story. The twist they place on it (substituting romantic love for a more genuine kind), especially by placing the emphasis on the so-called villain, does make this more interesting than the standard fare.

This is not really a kids flick, as in, it would probably not be appropriate for my seven-year-old, but I wouldn’t consider it too nasty for her were she nine or ten, perhaps. I wonder who she would relate to more: the dark queen with the incredible powers, or the empty-headed simpleton who wanders around and smiles at things: I know who I’d wish she’d choose, that’s for sure.

7 times when she was good she was very very good, but when she was bad she was better out of 10

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“I had wings once, and they were strong. But they were stolen from me.” – happens to the best and the worst of us - Maleficent

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