Friday, May 30, 2014

Movie Review: Maleficent

Step 1: If you have any expectations for this movie - any at all - you should lower them. The movie makes baffling decisions with its source material, has major tonal issues, and contains one of the most intrusive, unnecessary, and annoying voice-overs I've ever heard.

And yet. I still kind of enjoyed it.

For all this movie does wrong, it actually does a few things well. That's why I'm saying you should lower your expectations: because if you do, you might be able to enjoy this for what it is, instead of hating it for failing to be what it should have been.

Actually, let's start there. This movie clearly should have been an R-rated dark fantasy-bordering-on-horror; a nightmarish examination of madness and rage from the point of view of a character consumed by those emotions.

I think the filmmakers knew that's what they should have made. But they also knew they were making this for Disney, who might be more interested in selling Maleficent dolls to six-year-old girls than in traumatizing them for life.

Pity - this generation needs a Secret of NIMH. Well, besides Coraline, ParaNorman, Where the Wild Things Are, and.... okay, okay. This generation already has a bunch of Secret of NIMH's. But you can never have enough.

Where was I? Oh yeah. The movie wanted to be dark but was penned in by a PG rating. Jesus - even most animated movies pull a PG-13 these days.

The upshot of all this is that instead of a dark fairy tale, we got a comedy/fantasy adventure. In addition, the movie seemed to be of two minds regarding its relationship to the Disney classic. The celebration of Aurora's birth almost feels like a shot-for-shot recreation, which becomes problematic when they deviate from the script (stupidly, I'd add - the story and scene would have been better if they'd stuck with the original there). On the other end of the spectrum, the entire last act is rewritten to provide an ending happier for the film's protagonists. In the middle, characters are re-purposed in radically different ways (fans of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather will likely be particularly angered by the fairies' portrayal).

Assuming you can accept all this - and for fans of the original, that's a big assumption - this movie delivers a surprisingly solid product. The comedy isn't brilliant, but it is legitimately funny. And while the character at the center of this story only feels like Maleficent for a few scenes, she's still interesting. More importantly, they sell the character's arc well. We see her evolution into and (unfortunately) out of the Maleficent who curses Aurora, and it's a decent story.

The movie's licence with King Stefan was even more clever. They went in some wildly different directions with his character, but the seeds for these changes are in the classic movie and the source material.

I'm really only scratching the surface of what's right and wrong with this movie. There's some gorgeous imagery... and some idiotic design. The movie delivers several key scenes... then resolves with an ending so sappy you cringe in pain. And, while I'm complaining, if you're doing a version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, you should damn well use Tchaikovsky's score. That's just common sense.

I've seen quite a few live-action reinterpretations of classic fairy tales, and as a rule none have been great. This is certainly better than Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland or either of the Snow White movies we got a few years ago. I'm not sure I'd call it a good movie, but once I accepted what it was, I found it genuinely enjoyable. If you can't do that, well... I don't blame you in the least. They tore down just about everything that made Sleeping Beauty into the masterpiece it is. But the fact they managed to patch together something decent out of the pieces deserves some recognition.

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