Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Maleficent

Her Wicked, Wicked (Though Très Jolie) Ways
or
The Method Act of Evil ("So, What's My Motivation?")

I'm of two minds on Maleficent: pro and con.   This Angelina Jolie star-vehicle (she also executive produced) is one of those slam-dunks of casting real-life counterparts for animated characters—like Shelley Duvall for Olive Oyl, or John Goodman for Fred Flintstone. Make-up artist Rick Baker merely had to chisel a little more cheekbone to make her match the stylized profile from Disney's late-50's animation of Sleeping Beauty to perfect the look. Rookie Robert Stromberg is the director here (although his production design work on Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Oz the Great and Powerful, shows he knows his way around a complicated set). Linda Woolverton (who worked on Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Alice in Wonderland) wrote the screenplay with some whispered assistance from the shadows by Paul Dini. That's some talent behind and in front of the camera, that no one can deny.

But, this one left me torn. Jolie is terrific, in a performance of such stillness and economy that a raised eyebrow can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. And when she opens up and howls in a moment of violation, it haunts. She and the production design are the whole movie, really. Sharlto Copley plays the antagonist, and he seems to be rather straight-jacketed in the role, and Elle Fanning plays the "sleeping beauty" Princess Aurora, in a performance that consists of grinning like an idiot.
Maleficent is the latest of the "Wicked" school of re-written history fairy-tales,* where the traditional villains' side of things are presented, their reasons for being bad more than just because they're "drawn that way"—there are psychological reasons for their actions, like Richard II's "I got a hump, okay?" and Oedipus' "Look, it was all a big mistake!" Maleficent takes one of Disney's more fancifully-designed villains and "explains" her away, negating what made Maleficent the character so intriguing (and inspired Jolie to take the role in the first place). So, I'm torn.
Having seen the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty (on which this is inspired), I'm con.  


But having seen the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, I'm pro.

Perhaps I should explain. 
Submitted—Argument for the prosecution: 

Not to get too "law and order" here, but villains are villains because they are bad. Vain, selfish, of no community except of their own making, they are the cautionary "other" that fairy-tales warn us about and provide the heroic alternative to inspire us. Villains are supposed to frighten us, and be examples only in the negative. Unfortunately, the thrill of the villain can also make them attractive. Marlon Brando was famously aghast when his anti-establishment motorcycle punk in The Wild One became so popular. Darth Vader was fascinating in Star Wars and because of it, his caché increased in size and scope in the second film of the first trilogy—I suspect that part of the animosity towards the prequels is how they diminished the mystery of the character (We like to tear down our heroes, but we HATE it when we tear down our villains). 

I don't mind when a villain gets his just desserts, but I don't want to "feel for" them when they receive it. I want no sympathy for villainy, no matter the lawyering of its arguments. The fact is I don't care why the Grinch stole Christmas, why the Wicked Witches terrorize Oz, or why Booth shot Lincoln or Oswald shot Kennedy. I don't care why the creep killed those people at USC. Some things cannot be explained away, or understood for their motivations. God help me when I do understand the terrible actions in this world. They are acts of evil, un-pure and simple.


It is a tragedy that we even have the opportunity to ponder them at all. 

Making Maleficent sympathetic diminishes us...and diminishes her.

Submitted—Argument for the defense:
However, there is something good going on here that started with Disney's Beauty and the Beast and is just starting to bloom in full flower with films like Pixar's Brave and Disney Frozen—female heroes and female bonding is making a comeback in movies, and Disney, who foisted so many pliant princesses on our culture, seems to be leading the charge. However improbable it may be for Princess Aurora to see Maleficent as a fairy godmother (as she does in this), there is a bracing antidote to the traditional "true love's kiss" (as there was in Frozen) that belies the fairy-tale of the solution to problems being a handsome prince. Because if it's one thing that "Sleeping Beauty" teaches us, it's that a woman's life can really get messed up due to an unfortunate prick.

It's a lesson more important for our women-folk than sustaining the conventional jealous battles over territory for the efficacy of Evil Queens.

Still torn, though. One thing I did find perfect in this film, however, is the exit song—a new rendition of the 1959 film's song, a melancholy, minor-key version, lachrymosely husked by Lana Del Ray.



* Nah.  It's not "Wicked" that started it.  It's John Gardner's "Grendel" which told the story of "Beowulf" from the monster's perspective.

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