Angelina Jolie is marvelously wicked in Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action MALEFICENT, but is the film’s attempt to de-villain-ize its villainess a success or a failure? Check out this (belated) installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast to find out. Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski debate the wisdom or retro-fitting classic tales with updated elements that may not fit.
The goofiest filmed version of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1995 attempts to gene-splice a new WICKED-esque back story with the familiar elements of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, resulting in a cluttered feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.
Since she is not malefic, why is she named Maleficent?
The question may seem pedantic, but truly it is symptomatic of everything wrong with MALEFICENT, the live-action prequel-remake of Walt Disney Pictures’ classic animated film SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). While trying to contort the narrative into a WICKED-esque apologia for its not so villainous villainess, the new film shoe-horns in elements from its source (itself based on tales by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm) with the enthusiasm of a reluctant young host inviting unwanted older relatives simply because they’re expected, regardless of whether or not they fit in. Meanwhile, the new story line stumbles along, occasionally colliding with the older bits, feigning familiarity but really rushing to get away as soon as possible. Thus, we get not only the eponymous character’s inappropriate name, but also a useless trio of fairy godmothers, an ineffectual fire-breathing dragon, and a pathetic prince, who rides in just long enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. Add it all up and you have the goofiest adaptation of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by Demi Moore and company.
In this version, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not so much a malefactor as a victim, beginning life as an innocent fairy living peacefully in her fairy wonderland. She has the ill luck to become enamored of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a young human with royal ambitions. Years later, Stefan ascends to the throne by pretending to complete a task assigned by the former king: killing Maleficent. (Actually, he drugs her and clips her wings, which he brings back as “proof” of her death.) Betrayed and outraged, Maleficent turns to the dark side, dragging her kingdom with her, whether they like it or not (a story element glossed over completely). She shows up uninvited at the party celebrating the birth of Stefan’s child Aurora, bestowing the expected curse that will send the young princess into a death-like sleep when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel sometime before her sixteenth birthday.
However, instead of fast-forwarding to the fateful day, MALEFICENT treads water for what seems like sixteen years, with the title character keeping an eye on Princess Aurora (now played by Elle Fanning) for no particular reason other than idle interest. The film makes it immediately clear that the three fairy godmothers charged with protecting Aurora are incompetent nitwits, and the princess would have died many times over if not for Maleficent surreptitious intervention. In other words, as we move into the second act of the story, Maleficent has gone from Good to Evil back to Good again, though she retains the trappings of “Evil” in a belabored attempt to pretend that there is some kind of third-act redemption she needs to achieve.
With the character arc obviously completed (at least to anyone still awake after the terrifically boring back story that has been unnecessarily inflated to fill the first act), there is nothing left to do but go through the motions, which become increasingly arbitrary and eventually nonsensical. To sight the obvious: King Stefan has all the spinning wheels in his kingdom burned, but he leaves the remnants in a room in his castle, ignoring the obvious fact that his daughter is fated to prick her hand on a needle – which is made of mettle and therefore not flammable. You almost wonder whether he is unconsciously colluding with his nemesis; instead, it’s just bad screenwriting.
Even more awkward: Maleficent is unstoppably all powerful, but the film pretends she is not, just long enough to stretch the story to feature length, then admits the obvious during the climax, when she easily defeats Stefan (with an assist from her pet raven-turned-human-turned-dragon, who shows up just because this is after all a remake of SLEEPING BEAUTY so we have to get the dragon in there somehow). Which leaves us wondering: Why didn’t she simply get even with Stefan immediately after he clipped her wings? Why make her own kingdom suffer? Why curse Aurora – an innocent victim – instead of gong after the true culprit? With its (allegedly anti-) heroine being drugged and violated, MALEFICENT might be read as a metaphor for date rape, with everything that follows a cathartic revenge fantasy, but that reading hardly works if Malifcent’s focus shifts from Stefan to Aurora – another example of the “Sleeping Beauty” story elements awkwardly interfering with the attempt to re-imagine the famous villainess as a Wronged Woman rather than Evil Incarnate.
The Really Big Question, however, is why we are supposed to overlook her misdirected anger when the film comes to its inevitable happy ending. Presumably this is the Darth Vader Syndrome: no matter how much suffering you have caused, you get Total Absolution for one good turn. At least this time, it’s a woman who is being absolved, which is progress of a kind, I suppose. But truly, what good is a level playing field for the sexes, when the even ground is achieved by lowering standards rather than raising them?
At least Darth had the good grace to die after saving Luke. We’re supposed to accept Maleficent living happily ever after with Aurora, which raises even more unanswered questions, such as: Doesn’t Aurora resent having never met her own mother, for which Maleficent is ultimately to blame, since Aurora’s mother died during the long years when Aurora was in hiding from the woman who cursed her? Is Maleficent comfortable with Aurora possessing the trappings of royalty and wealth inherited from Stefan, who “earned” them by violating Maleficent? Or have Maleficent and Aurora come to an understanding, choosing to overlook these messy details.
For a film that pretends to offer a more sophisticated take on a simple tale, MALEFICENT is strangely uninterested in these complexities, offering instead a bland feel-good conclusion that ignores these lingering questions.
Wrapped up in an off-the-rack computer-generated fantasy land, filled with visual noise but no real music, MALEFICENT looks less like a Grimm fairy tale for children of all ages than a carbon copy of EPIC (2103), with live actors pasted into animated landscapes. The disconnect is exacerbated by the post-production 3D conversion, which leaves the live-action characters looking flat but separates them from the artificial backgrounds in a manner that recalls old-fashioned blue-screen special effects, which often made it painfully obvious the actors were not really part of the environments seen behind them.
At least Angelina Jolie brings some zest to her role; aided by Rick Baker’s makeup, she alone among the cast almost seems to fit into this fantasy world. The same cannot be said for the three fairy godmothers, who in their smaller form are ghastly simulacrums of humanity, their computer animated faces acting as classic examples of the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. (They look quite fine when the grow to full size and are played by actual actresses, but their personalities remain equally annoying.)
The rest of the cast is bland, barely more animated than their phony surroundings. Copley strives hard to appear a genuine threat, but he’s too obviously a fall guy (literally, as it turns out) to really register.
Special effects are technically impressive but lack originality (we get yet another version of the giant tree warrior special effects seen in LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention NOAH). The CGI dragon is nicely rendered, but since it no longer is a manifestation of Maleficent (rather, it is her servant, who usually appears as a raven), there is no emotional resonance, nor is its appearance truly decisive in the climactic battle; it’s just more stuff thrown into the frame. Like almost everything else in MALEFICENT, it’s a great image for the trailer but just another jumbled fragment of a feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together. SPOILERS The most troubling unanswered question lingering over the movie is ignored with blithe indifference by the script: Is Aurora cool with Maleficent having killed her father?
Sure, Stefan turned out to be a bad guy, but when you think of it, he did not behave as badly as he could have; as terrible as his crime against Maleficent was, he showed some restraint, only pretending to kill her. In a film that strives to find a spark of goodness hidden inside a heart of darkness, it seems odd that the screenplay can find no hint of sympathy for Stefan, who instead turns into a standard issue Disney villain, dying a standard issue villain’s death. You know how it goes: hero has the villain at the brink of death, relents; villain responds by trying to stab hero in back, forcing hero to kill villain in self-defense. Watch BEAUTY AND THE BEAST again: Stefan goes out exactly like Gaston. Which should not be too big a surprise, since both films were written by Linda Woolverton. The real surprise is how Woolverton could go from crafting one of Disney’s finest achievements to churning out this formulaic junk.
And just in case you were wondering, the ending sees Maleficent getting her wings back, leaving you to ponder yet another question: If it was that easy, why didn’t she do this sixteen years ago and avoid all the grief inflicted on everyone else? END SPOILERS
[rating=1] Avoid at all cost.
MALEFICENT (2014). Walt Disney Pictures. PG. 97 minutes. Directed by Robert Stomberg. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Brenton Thwaits, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Sam Riley.
A Disney princess movie with a vengeance, the cg animated FROZEN offers up no less than two princesses for the marketing department to turn into ancillary merchandise: one sweet and plucky (voiced by Kristen Bell); the other (Idina Menzel) cursed with the ability to freeze whatever she touches, with no Professor X around to whisk her away to the Institute. Plus, there’s an overload of songs, a surfeit in comedy relief characters — including a loyal reindeer, a tribe of over-enthusiastic trolls, and a hyper-over-enthusiastic snowman (Josh Gad) — and some seriously stunning production design, taking full advantage of the stuff that seems to work best in 3D. Too bad swirling snowflakes can’t quite make up for weak plotting.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons sit down to weigh FROZEN’s stature in the pantheon of Disney fairy-tale adaptations, explore the knots that animators tie themselves into in courting their princess-loving core demo without antagonizing the rest of the potential audience, and debate the creators’ cautious approach to their tale’s Freudian aspects. Click on the player to hear the show.
No match for Pixar’s best work, but a step in the right direction after some recent disappointments
Mike and Sully are back, but they are not friends till the end – well, at least not until the third act. It’s as if Pixar Animation Studios took a look at MONSTERS INC. and said, “The Mike-Sully relationship is just as good as Buzz and Woody, but it’s as if we skipped straight to TOY STORY 2, without ever getting to see them meet and become pals, so let’s go back and do that.” That’s right: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY takes the well-worn prequel path of leading up to what we already know, instead of showing us something new – or at least that’s how it seems initially. In fact, the new film is very much the Mike Wazowski story: it’s about the little guy who dreams big; who works harder than everyone else because, frankly, he doesn’t have the natural skills; and who must, ultimately, find a different path to success from the one he anticipated, because he’s never going to be the heavyweight champion he imagined. It’s a great message for children and a poignant reminder for adults: everyone has something to offer; the “cool” kids aren’t always cool; and sometimes the underdog has his day – though perhaps not quite in the manner he expected.
PLOT SUMMARY (MINOR SPOILERS)
After a school field trip to Monsters, Inc., the one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) decides he wants to be a scarer when he grows up. To that end, he studies and earns admission to Monsters University, where he meets the over-confidant James Sullivan (John Goodman). “Sully,” as he is known to his friends, is a legacy student, coasting on his father’s reputation and his own natural abilities, which he does not bother to hone.Mike, meanwhile, works diligently, but an accident in class gets both of them kicked out of the university’s scare program.
Mike and Sully’s only chance to get back in is by winning the “Scare Games,” but to qualify, they have to join a fraternity, and the only one with vacancies is made up of losers, known as Oozma Kappa. Fortunately, Mike’s know-how and Sully’s skills propel the group to success as a team, but the final game requires each individual monster to prove his scare-skills, and Sully (well aware of Mike’s deficiency) rigs the results, which gets both of them expelled.
Determined to prove himself, Mike goes through a scare-door but finds himself trapped in a sleep-away camp filled with children who are not afraid of him. Sully goes through the door to aid his friend, but he lacks the confidence to be truly scary in a real-world situation. However, working together, they literally blow the door off the place….
COMMENTS (END SPOILERS)
I was never a huge fan of MONSTERS, INC. Though entertaining, it is not rich enough to stand up to multiple viewings as well as other Pixar classics; its main strength lies in the Mike-Sully relationship. Transplanting that element to an earlier time and a different setting engenders some new comic possibilities but not enough to sustain the follow-up as more than a mildly amusing time-waster that follows the typical prequel “surprise” strategy: Mike and Sully don’t like each other initially; the first film’s villain, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seems like a nice guy at first; and so on.
Fortunately, when the story moves beyond playing with our expectations about the familiar characters, the message about teamwork and learning to use one’s own personal resources enlivens MONSTERS UNIVERSITY; the well-executed third especially justifies the film’s existence as something more than a way to cash in on a successful predecessor.
Long before they realize it themselves, the audience sees that Mike and Sully are complimentary talents – the brains and the brawn, if you will . Mike is the self-made man, pulling himself up through determination. Sully is unformed raw material, impulsive, expecting success to come easy but afraid of failing to meet expectations implanted by his famous name. The benefits of collaboration are foreshadowed when their combined, if not premeditated, efforts capture a rival university’s mascot. From there, it may be predictable that they will succeed only when they become a team, but the result is no less satisfying.
The message extends beyond them. Midway through, when the Oozma Kappa (that reads “OK” in abbreviated form, get it?) are dispirited about their chances of winning, there is a brilliant sequence in which Mike sneaks them into Monsters, Inc. and shows them a scare-floor full of workers – none of whom have anything obvious in common. The point: you can’t tell who’s the best just by looks; each scarer uses his or her own personal skills; what seems like weaknesses may be hidden strengths; and everyone needs to develop what he or she can do best, rather than striving to conform an established norm. Sure, it’s basically REVENGE OF THE NERDS redone as a CG Muppet movie, but it works.
VISUALS AND 3D
The screenplay may be a mixed bag, but the visual execution is state-of-the-art, without being ostentatious. The backgrounds and the characters are so detailed that they seem almost palpable; we may be reaching the point where the champions of stop-motion effects can no longer point to the tactile textures of miniature models as a point of superiority over computer-generated animation. Mike and Sully are rendered even better than before, and there are some nifty new characters, too, including Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), an insectoid monster with demonic wings, who cleverly skirts the edge of the light while addressing students, seldom emerging fully from the shadows.
These qualities are magnified by some of the most beautiful 3D visual ever captured on screen. Unlike too many post-production conversions today (including MONSTERS, INC.), we are not seeing a simple separation of foreground and background elements. The characters and the props have depth. There is a curvature to Sully’s bulk that makes him appear almost real on screen. A nighttime seen beside a lake illuminated by a full moon extends from the edges of the movie screen and into the distance like a landscape viewed through a window.
The expressive capabilities of the animation are also amazing. The one-eyed Mike, in particular, has an amazing range, and it’s not the CGI equivalent of scenery chewing, either: a blink, a downcast look – these are the simple building blocks the animators use to show the mix of determination and self-doubt that make the little green guy come alive.
And the filmmakers know when to use all these elements in the service of a great set-piece. The games provide ample opportunities for visual fun (including a massive librarian-octopus who seems to have crept out of a Lovecraft story), but director Dan Scanlon is clever enough to modulate the mayhem, turning the volume up to 9 but saving the 10 for the end, which offers an unexpected highlight: a scene that takes familiar horror tropes suitable to a FRIDAY THE 13TH knockoff (dark cabin in the woods, rustling shadows, and scratching claws – all building up to the final reveal of the monster) and uses them as deftly as any live action movie. Especially impressive: for once, we in the audience are on the side of the monsters, but that does not diminish the sinister tension of the scene. This is MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s true “money scene,” the one that makes you realize you just got everything you paid for when you purchased your ticket.
Needless to say, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is very funny. A bit less expected: in the counter-programming sweepstakes with WORLD WAR Z (which opened the same weekend), Pixar’s G-rated film boasts an animated scare sequence that rivals Brad Pitt’s live-action trek through a zombie-infested corridor. More successfully than the PG-13 rival, MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s horror-movie-style climax completes character arcs that tease out previously unseen nuances in the familiar characters, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion while setting up the events that will follow. The script even avoids the obvious, easy resolution, offering Mike and Sully a less expected route that will lead to MONSTERS, INC.
The virtues of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY are not enough to raise the film to the level of Pixar’s best work: TOY STORY 2, THE INCREDIBLES, CARS. Although it is fun to see Mike and Sully back in action, I’m not sure the sequel is even as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, after the double disappointment of CAR 2 and BRAVE, this is a small step back in the right direction.
[rating=3] On the CFQ Review Scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation. Note: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is preceded by THE BLUE UMBRELLA, a cute Pixar short subject, in which common street objects (drain pipes, mail boxes) are given subtly anthropomorphized expressions. The simple story follows the titular umbrella (which looks like the real thing, but with animated features) meeting a pink (presumably female) counterpart. Their owners separate, but a gust of wind brings them back together. It’s vaguely similar to last year’s Oscar-winning short subject, PAPERMAN; though not quite as satisfying artistically, THE BLUE UMBRELLA features very impressive computer graphics to bring its street scene to life. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios: June 21, 2013). Rated G. Running time: 110 minutes. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Writers: Robert L Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Noah Johnston, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, John Ratzenberger.
Helena Bonham Carter giving CINDERELLA a hand… A new family gets spooked by the POLTERGEIST… Brad Pitt has family issues in WORLD WAR Z…
From the luxurious Cinefantastique Online studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of genre media.
All movies cheat, but horror, fantasy films, and science fiction films are a special case. Every motion picture shoots its scenes over and over, then edits the best bits together to hide the seams: camera angles conceal objects the filmmakers do not want us to see; lens filters enhance the look of real locations, while unreal locations are built on sound stages; computer-generated imagery airbrushes away flaws in live-action photography. Fantasy-oriented film-making takes this make-believe a step further: miniatures assume gargantuan proportions on the big screen; makeup alters men into monsters; and CGI creates not only imaginary creatures but also entire worlds in which they live.
In such a context, when everything seems possible and much of what is visible on screen exists only because it was created with special effects, how does one define a movie cheat? Like this: In most films, whether they are achieved with live-action, animation, or special effects, the techniques used are supposed to be invisible to the average viewer, creating a sense of verisimilitude. The film is meant to unreel as if the events are actually happening, and the audience accepts what they are seeing without questioning how it was achieved.
Some filmmakers, however, are bolder than this. Sometimes in order to make a dramatic point, or more often to spring a surprise on the audience — the filmic equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat — the filmmakers will violate the “internal reality” of the film with a clever visual or audio cheat. This is different from the special effects that create a fantasy environment: wizards and monsters exist in the imaginary world of LORD OF THE RINGS, so it is hardly a “cheat” to portray them by whatever means necessary.
In this context, a “cheat” means a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, that shows something contradictory or impossible according to the film’s own logic. In short, a cheat works because the trickery is visible – intentionally so – otherwise, the impact would be lost. You may need sharp eyes (or the reverse button on your DVD player), but you should be able to spot the subterfuge if you look for it.
Take, for example, Walt Disney Pictures animated gem, TANGLED (2010). Computer-generated imagery takes us so far into the realm of fantasy that one may question the wisdom of pointing out a cheat; after all, what reality is there to violate? Yet, this wonderful animated fairy tale does indeed include a classic movie cheat, one previously seen in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE (1982). Watch the following sequence of shots to see how directors Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard use a movie cheat to create an impossible surprise.
When Flynn Rider first enters Rapunzel’s tower, he is seen in long-shot, clearly alone; there is nowhere for anyone to be hiding behind him.
As he pauses to open a satchel containing a stolen crown, the film cuts in to a closer angle, hiding the (previously empty) space behind him. However, before he can enjoy his ill-gotten gains….
Rider is wacked from behind, falling to the floor and revealing Rapunzel standing behind him, a frying pan in her hand.
How did Rapunzel manage to get behind Rider without being seen by the audience? In the long-shot that begins the sequence, there is nowhere for her to be hiding (unless her pet chameleon Pascal has somehow magically transferred his powers to her).
Presumably, Rapunzel sneaked up from behind, but there is a wall at her back and no object to provide cover. She could have entered the scene only from the right side of the frame, which should have made her visible to us – unless we are to assume that she crawled into the waist-high medium shot on her hands and knees, and then rose up once she had positioned herself so that Rider would hide her from the camera.
In short, Rapunzel’s appearance behind Rider is impossible within the “reality” presented by the film TANGLED. Does that make this a film flub? No, it is a wonderful example of an excellent movie cheat used to create a memorably effective moment that might have been mitigated by restrictions to the semblance of reality. This is movie magic at its best, using basic techniques of camera placement and editing to create illusions so convincing that we do not question them, even when they are “impossible.”
This article is the first in a series of favorite movie cheats visible in fantasy, horror and science-fiction films. These are all moments that catch the eye and/or provide dramatic impact because the films dare to violate the dictates of “realism.” Hopefully, exposing this sleight-of-hand will not undermine your appreciation of the magic; if anything, awareness of the cheat should increase your appreciation of the deft techniques used to achieve these remarkable and startling effects.
Walt Disney Pictures releases the third IRON MAN movie during the lucrative month of May (“summer” blockbusters don’t wait for summer anymore). Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, the man in the iron suit, along iwth Dwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine, and Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan. However, Favreau (who helmed the first two IRON MAN films) is out of the director’s chair, replaced by Shane Black (LETHAL WEAPON), who also had a hand in the script, along with Drew Pearce, based on the Marvel Comics character. This time, the story pits Stark against a new villain, The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley. Also in the cast are Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian and William Sadler as Sal Kennedy. And we’re sure Stan Lee will show up in there somewhere.
U.S. Theatrical Release: May 3, 2013
Walt Disney Pictures releases the latest computer-animated fantasy from Pixar Animation Stuidios – a prequel to the popular MONSTERS, INC. This time, we get to see Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) back in their college days, when they were studying – and competing – to beomc the scariest monsters. Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tilly, Frank Oz, and John Ratzenberger also reprise their roles; Kelsey Grammer replaces the late James Coburn. Dan Scanlon directed.
U.S. Theatrical Release: June 21
Walt Disney Pictures releases this prequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ, which explains how a sideshow magician was swept away in a balloon to the magical land, where he became the titular character. Sam Raimi directed from a screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” James Franco stars, with Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Abigail Spencer, Zach Braff, Joey King, Martin Klebba, Bill Cobbs, Ted Raimi, Tony Cox, and Mia Serafino.
Release Date: March 8, 2013