Saturday, June 07, 2014

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014)

(Warning--story and plot twists in the movie discussed in detail)

Once upon a cream

Saw Maleficent over the weekend, and what King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) does to the eponymous fairy (Angelina Jolie) is nothing compared to what Disney does to its original film--from behind; over and over again; in the grossest most graphic manner possible. 

It's part of the New Disney Strategy: retool its classic titles, make them more palatable and socially progressive for the clueless little girls out there--starting with Frozen, the princess is spirited, independent, less likely to look to the handsome prince on a horse to save her and the day. 

That's the up side; on the down side you're pretty much looking at the new Disney template, with which the studio plans to stamp out 3D animated blockbusters every year (down from every few years, as computers have vastly sped up the process). Far from being innovations in character they're going to be the latest cliches, to be splashed across all the digitally projected screens again and again and again in the coming summers (think bukkake, Disney-style).   

The script is lazy beyond description. In the requisite backstory Maleficent (what kind of sadistic parent would base their child's name on the Latin adjective for 'evil'?) is an innocent faerie (Isabelle Molloy) flitting around and doing good deeds, who makes the mistake of falling for a mere mortal (Michael Higgins as the younger Stefan). She's not bad, just misunderstood (Is this Disney's official line towards villains, now? Don't you miss a time when they were plain and simply evil?).

(Edit - someone pointed out to me that the trend (in animated features, anyway) really started with Shrek, rival studio Dreamwork's own digital 3D-animated early effort at competing with Disney (not to mention a still-funny slam at Disney's former megalomaniac--sorry, CEO--Michael Eisner). Yet another small innovation turned monstrous cliche through overuse). 

Maleficent grows up; she hasn't seen Stefan but still remembers her love for him, despite the fact that his folk have become more belligerent over the years (sort of like the Lannisters and Starks versus the folk beyond The Wall, or the United States versus the rest of the world--one side all provincial attitude and oh so very Caucasian, the other all magical and mysterious and tinted shades of blue and gray skin, in every manner of shape and size).  Now the turning point: Stefan wants the throne, and ever since King Henry made the announcement that he'd grant his crown to whoever kills the faerie, Stefan has decided to renew relations with his former--because, like, screwing with your bitch is so sick, y'know?

Stefan dopes her and is about to stab her when he has a pang of conscience, decides to use his iron blade to burn off her wings instead (she wakes with the mother of all hangovers). I can just imagine the interior monologue going on in Stefan's head: "Um--yeah. Can't kill you, can't leave you alone, so I'll just take these, mmkay? And will you please not show your face anywhere, or Henry'll have my head--I mean, literally. In fact, why don't you just limp away to some abandoned ruin and hide there for a couple of years, till he dies or something? You cool with that?"

So she wakes and as if under posthypnotic suggestion does exactly what Stefan says (she doesn't even go to whatever passes for faerie police to file a complaint). Stefan marries his anonymous princess, becomes king; Aurora is born, and--you know the drill: Maleficent invites herself to the christening, insults everyone including three visiting fairies (she calls them 'the rabble'--but they were friends before this; where's the scene that explains what happened?), puts a curse on the babe's head; Aurora is handed over to the three, each as it turns out more irritating than the next ("We're here in the spirit of reconciliation," one proclaims; if Stefan is so frightened of fairies why were they invited?)

Ugly music. Ugly, unimaginative sets. Epically ugly digital effects--for a moment you wonder if someone had spliced footage from the Fairy Oddparents' live-action movie (think about it: that TV show's subtext--of child abuse and the resulting flight into fantasy--is more interesting than anything going on here). 

Much talk of how Angelina Jolie has magnificently essayed the role--magnificent, nothing; I look at her and I'm reminded of Katherine Helmond's horrific plastic surgery in Terry Gilliam's Brazil

No, for me the most interesting performance is given not by Jolie but by Copley, whose Stefan at least shows some awareness of right as opposed to wrong, some notion of the role perversity plays in the process (Kissing a winged faerie must have given him a xenophilic frisson, the spicy possibility of interspecies sex). 

Plus Stefan for all his faults knows a little strategy. Battling a creature with magic powers? Faced with supernatural odds? Be sneaky, be innovative, use a lot of iron. I love it when characters are being clever, and not just sitting on their useless asses awaiting their fate (pity the director Robert Stromberg--mainly known for doing special effects work (this is his directorial debut)--does a wretched job of filming Stefan's efforts, all shaky-cam and little editing coherence). 

And so it goes. When the dragon is chained by half a dozen knights, it can barely muster the strength to beat its wings; when Maleficent is in peril suddenly the dragon's dragging the knights along like so many tin pinatas. "What gives?" I asked a neighboring viewer. "It's like 'plot armor,' only involving strength," he replied. "Oh. A 'plot power upgrade?'" "Pfft--something like that."

Then the movie steals the ending of Frozen, where the notion of 'true love's first kiss' was first redefined (redefined, that is, if you haven't watched Bound, Mulholland Drive, Personal Best, Heavenly Creatures,  even Morocco, to name a few). It ends with a reprise of the original's 'Sleeping Beauty' song, to the tune of Tchaikovsky, croaked by Lana del Rey as if she were high on Walter White's blue crystal meth.

I suppose I would be less angry if I weren't familiar with the original production. Sleeping Beauty was to be Disney's biggest, most expensive, most extravagant production; in this particular case the publicity wasn't too far off. The studio sank six million dollars into the effort, an unheard of sum for an animated feature; it took almost the entire decade of the '50s to create--the animation required five years alone--while on the side the studio cranked out far less ambitious movies (Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955)--all costing half as much as Beauty; even the studio's prestigious live-action feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) was cheaper by at least a million).

Sleeping Beauty was the Avatar of its day, incorporating the latest technological advances from six-channel stereo (for the Tchaikovsky music) to Super Technirama, the '50s equivalent of high-definition (similar screen ratio as Cinemascope (2.35:1) only because the film negative was twice larger the image was clearer, less grainy). And for all the advances, the film did incorporate one holdover from the old days: it was the last Disney animated feature to be hand-inked onto animation cells, rather than photocopied from the animators' sketches--the uneven colors, the occasional blotched line betraying the presence of a human hand.
Even more impressive than the time, money or technology was the talent employed. Eyvind Earle was given unprecedented control over background art, which ranged from impossibly beautiful (think illuminated panel)--

--to bleakly dramatic--

--to grimly foreboding.

Eight of the Nine Old Men of Disney animation (for some reason Ward Kimball didn't do much) worked on the project; even Chuck Jones chipped in a little (he was mostly with Kimball). 

Key man was Wolfgang Reitherman. He animated the prince's escape from Maleficent's castle, and the climactic battle against Maleficent as titanic firebreathing dragon.

As you see, Reitherman's work was not a little remarkable.

In retrospect Disney must have felt that using Earle was a mistake (at least Kimball thought that was Disney's thinking). They wanted to do something different, opted for a Renaissance Art look, picked Earle; Earle came up with a depthless ethereal style, done in a bright (as Dave Kehr puts it) 'midcentury America' color palette. Audiences must have disliked the diaphanous imagery and chill emotional tone, and stayed away in droves. The film earned barely more than its budget, the corporation reported its first loss ever, animators were laid off; Disney did not attempt another classic fairy-tale adaptation until The Little Mermaid, thirty years later.  

As for what I think, let me put it this way: this is the only Disney feature I actually love--the sad-sack prince, the simpering princess, the slapstick fairies all put in their proper place as ants crawling on the base of Earle's majestic designs. Super Technirama unleashed his imagination--the landscapes unroll left and right and leap skywards; the colors mount a no-prisoners assault on your eyeballs, vulgar but undoubtedly alive. Goody two-shoes sentimentality is held firmly in check--is rendered altogether irrelevant--by the art's terrible grandeur. 

As Maleficent (the magnificent Eleanor Audley) faces Beauty's puny champion (“Now you shall deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!”), Reitherman lets loose all the powers of Disney: bruise-purple smoke rise in thick lazy curls; green flames caper with unholy glee. 

The dragon--the film's true star--is a smoky-metal nightmare, all spiked armor and delicate batwings; it does full justice to Ursula K. Le Guin's description of the dragon Kalessin, in her novel The Farthest Shore:

There was a noise as of metal rubbing against metal, the grating whisper of crossed swords. The ironcolored dragon had risen on its crooked legs. It moved and crossed the rivulet, with a soft hissing sound as it dragged its long body through the sand. 

Surely Le Guin saw Disney's film a decade before, and took away with her some of that creature's clashing and hissing and fuming majesty.

LeGuin does a tremendous job, but doesn't quite capture the unnerving speed of Reitherman's dragon; nor does she capture the vivid horror of its breath--a great flood of what looks like radioactive vomit, a prophetic dream of how napalm would dance and burn in the American imagination, a mere six years into the future. Easily Disney's masterpiece, and one of the greatest animated features ever made.


Quentin Tarantado said...

You didn't mention Magnificent Maleficent in the animated classic. She wasn't going to kill the prince, oh no, she'll keep the prince alive, and release him when he's a doddering old man, to go kiss his princess and give her a rude surprise. THAT was not in the original story!

Noel Vera said...

Nice touch, that.