Tuesday, June 03, 2014

maleficent, angelina, magnificent

I was looking forward to Maleficent, as I know that Angelina shines when she connects with her dark side, and was sure her twist on Disney's best villain would be fun to watch. Not only does Maleficent work as a fun fairy tale for the kids, and an excellent showcase for Jolie's killer cheekbones, but it offers a feminist twist on the tale that fairy tale revisionists will love as well.

Some spoilers ...

Maleficent, in all her winged glory

The story begins with a young faerie Maleficent, who lives in an enchanted forest called The Moors. Life there is a pretty happy one. She soars over a beautiful CGI-landscape and interacts with some cutesy tiny fairies. The only rub is that on the other side of The Moors is a kingdom full of humans led by a king who (for reasons unknown) would like nothing better than to wipe out all faeries and their magic. Everyone keeps to themselves until one day Maleficent meets a young human boy named Stefan, who has sneaked into the land of the faeries and tried to steal a magic stone. Maleficent charms the boy (and some giant tree-like fairies scare him) out of his theft. The two youngsters become friends, and in a montage we see that young love blossoms. But as soon as the audience is treated to its star's appearance Stefan takes off, apparently more enamored of what the human world can offer him than the winged Maleficent.

A sad Maleficent doesn't wait for the guy to call, but focuses on leading her fellow faeries against an attack from the King. His army is easily vanquished, and his hatred of the winged faerie only grows — he promises his kingdom to any man who can bring her down. The ambitious Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who has now managed to become a servant in the castle, sets off for the forest, knife in hand. He can't bring himself to kill his old love, but he can drug her and steal her wings. Jolie is heart-rending to watch when she wakes up, wounded, and realizes the extent of her physical violation. But it is clear that the betrayal of her heart is what stings the most.

Diaval and Maleficent

In its only misstep, for the rest of the film Stefan becomes a cardboard villain — all evil, with no shading. But where the story falters with his character, it soars with Maleficent. Fairy tales have always hinted at darker, more universal themes. Sleeping Beauty has been seen as a metaphor for sexual awakening. The creators of Maleficent (including Robert Stromberg, directing his first feature, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton) play with that theme when Aurora (Elle Fanning) reaches a certain age and falls into her eventual, cursed sleep, but they have also chosen to take a far more interesting road with Maleficent. She is neither purely evil nor good, and she changes and grows during the course of the story. After her symbolic rape she seems to have turned her back on men and love, but she takes as a companion (or familiar) a raven that she shape-shifts into a variety of forms — wolf, dragon, but mostly a young and handsome fellow named Diaval (Sam Riley). She curses Stefan's first-born, but she also becomes interested in her. Stefan sends the child away to the woods, ostensibly for her own safety, but it is Maleficent who watches her grow up and protects her, and in the process redefines the concept of fairy godmother.

CGI in many current films just leaves me cold, with the emphasis on breaking buildings and shattered glass, etc. But this story, with its faeries' love of nature uses CGI to not destroy but transform the natural world — Maleficent fights alongside giant boars and creatures made of trees, creates a wall of thorns — which not only suits the story, but makes for a more visually compelling film. But what really makes Maleficent is Jolie. The camera loves her, and she has never looked more beautiful, prosthetic chiseled cheekbones, golden eye contacts, horns and all. She owns the film, and as sweet and engaging as Fanning's Aurora may be, the audience is with Maleficent all the way.

Aurora and Maleficent

While watching Jolie wreak revenge on Stefan by cursing his baby and then growing to love and care for the girl I couldn't help but be reminded of the wonderful revisionist fairy tales by Angela Carter. And to think that such a twist has come from the Disney studio, complete with a humorous twist on Aurora's beloved, Prince Philip. There may be hope for the cult of princess yet, as long as we are willing to keep subverting it.


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