Maleficent (2014)

2016 #84
Robert Stromberg | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

Disney seem to be embarking on a project to remake all of their most beloved animated movies in live action,* with Cinderella being one of the highest grossing movies of last year, The Jungle Book currently doing gangbusters at the box office worldwide, an all-star Beauty and the Beast hotly anticipated for next year, and others in the pipeline that include Mulan, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, both Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, another 101 Dalmatians, an Aladdin prequel, Winnie the Pooh, and Tim Burton’s Dumbo. (No, I did not make those last two up.)

But it all started… back in 2010, when Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was an unexpectedly ginormous hit. But then there were a couple of years off, so you could argue the current wave started here: a revisionist re-telling of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of its villainess. In this version, we meet Maleficent as a child, protector of some fairy kingdom that borders the human kingdom. One day she meets a trespassing human boy, Stefan; they fall in love; eventually, he stops visiting, set on making his fortune in the king’s castle. After Maleficent has grown up to be Angelina Jolie doing an English accent and Stefan has grown up to be Sharlto Copley doing a Scottish accent (goodness knows why), the human king decides to invade the fairy land. Maleficent repels his forces, and the dying king vows whoever can defeat her will be named heir. So power-hungry Stefan does something terrible, and we’re on the road to the story we know… more or less.

It’s an interesting idea to take an archetypal villain who’s evil for evil’s sake and try to give her motivation, to understand why she did terrible things. Maleficent makes a fair fist of this, beginning long before the familiar tale to establish a run of events that tip the titular character to the dark side. What Stefan does to her to win power is pretty dark, and a clear analogy to a real-world crime that you wouldn’t expect from a PG-rated Disney movie. Our sympathies, at this point, lie with Maleficent. Of course, then she goes and condemns an innocent child to eternal slumber, so that’s less nice.

However, this is a Disney movie — you don’t get to turn a villain into the central character and have her be evil throughout. This is where the film gets really revisionist, because Maleficent keeps an eye on cursed Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) as she grows, doing more to keep her alive than the trio of fairies she’s supposedly in the care of, and her heart is gradually warmed to the girl. Unfortunately, Maleficent was too good at the cursing malarkey: unable to lift her own spell, it plays out regardless, and the film serves us new renditions of the impassable thorns, giant dragon, and true love’s first kiss. It’s in the last where Maleficent is thematically revisionist rather than just a massive rewrite. Your mileage may vary on whether this version is obvious and cheesy, or actually more meaningful and (for the primary audience of little kiddies) more thought-provoking than the original’s — I’d go with the latter.

So in some respects, Maleficent is a success. In others, it’s a bit of a mess. For all the additional character development given to Maleficent herself, the rest of the characters are two-dimensional at best. It’s ironic that, in a movie all about fleshing out and understanding the villain, the new villain (i.e. Stefan) is so flat. Other elements are just pointless or nonsensical, like the corridor of iron spikes Maleficent & co briefly have to squeeze along. It’s not a bad idea per se — it’s been established that iron hurts fairies (goodness knows why, but there you go), so it’s a reasonable concept for a physical obstacle — but it’s really poorly integrated into the story, and it’s bested by… walking through it carefully. Thrilling.

Parts of the film test-screened poorly — mainly the first act, with audiences wondering why it took so long for Jolie to turn up. Consequently, the whole thing was thrown out and reshot; in the process, Peter Capaldi and Miranda Richardson were deleted (and after they’d had to endure hours of transformative prosthetics for their roles, too), and Maleficent was given a new backstory. How far this extended into the rest of the movie, I’m not sure, but at times it feels like stuff has been cut or rearranged. Certainly the story flies past — if it wasn’t trimmed down in the edit, it needed expanding back at the screenplay stage.

Then there’s the uncanny-valley-tastic rendition of the three fairies, with mini plasticky-CGI versions of Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville floating around until they jarringly turn into live action; the unintentional hilarity of the Prince Charming-type apparently being from the kingdom of Ofsted (it’s actually Ulfstead, but still); and the original film’s famous song, Once Upon a Dream, being slowly murdered by Lana Del Rey. Perhaps surprisingly, the work of production-designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg is pretty decent, though over-fond of crash zooms during action sequences, and an overall visual style that’s reminiscent of the likes of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful — both of which Stromberg designed, funnily enough.

For all its faults, Maleficent was still the fourth highest grossing movie of 2014 — though the top grosser was Transformers: Age of Extinction and second was The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, so that shows what quality matters to the box office. Nonetheless, it’s no wonder Disney have kicked into gear with the live-action remakes, and even a Maleficent sequel is in development. (No idea how that’ll work — Sleepier Beauty?) On the bright side, there is something more interesting going on here than just an animated film being re-done with real people (and copious CGI). Certainly, anyone interested in fairytales being deconstructed and/or reconstructed should be sure to check it out.

3 out of 5

Maleficent is available on Netflix UK as of this week.

* At least they’re not trying to tie them together as another shared universe! ^

The Tourist (2010)

2014 #101
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Italy / English | 12 / PG-13

The TouristMuch maligned on its release, I thought The Tourist was actually a decently entertaining light thriller.

Some of the criticisms are valid: stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie do lack chemistry, there are some plot holes and logic leaps, and the tone is muddled (is it a thriller? A romance? A comedy? All of the above but with the wrong balance?)

However, other parts are good fun, and there are solid, entertaining twists to be found in the plot. It may not be a great movie, but taken as a light amusement, it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

2009 #63
Kerry Conran | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowIf the Indiana Jones series was a bit more sci-fi (even than Crystal Skull, that is), it might be rather like this. First time writer-director Kerry Conran evokes ’40s cinema serials more thoroughly than Lucas or Spielberg ever dared with a globe-hopping tale of a mad scientist’s giant robots doing all sorts of damage in a quest for… well, that would spoil the ending.

In the telling, Sky Captain is every inch a Boy’s Own adventure, packing every facet of that genre of storytelling into its brisk running time. There’s secret bases, ray guns, giant robots, flying aircraft carriers, snow-bound Himalayan treks, creature-infested secret jungle islands, huge underground bases, space rockets, planes that are also submarines, tree bridges over impossibly deep gorges… If it’s part of the genre, it’s probably here, and all finally executed with ’00s-level special effects. In some respects it does move between set pieces and locations in an episodic fashion, but then that’s more a trait of the films it emulates — i.e. episodic serials — than a flaw in Conran’s plotting.

Still, some might view Sky Captain as little more than an exercise in filmmaking — it was one of the first movies to be shot entirely on blue-screen, around the same time as Sin City and a couple of others. There’s more to it than that, but it’s also hard to ignore the style this creates. The shooting process is far from perfect if one were trying to recreate real life, but here the whole look is so stylised that it hardly matters. The period setting is nicely evoked, combining myriad influences into an intricately realised retro-future style, coupled with a lovely sepia sheen over everything. It’s beautifully lit, while individual shots and editing are frequently reminiscent of a style from the ’40s (and earlier). Again, Conran is being deliberately evocative of films of the period, rather than a modern film set then; more La Antena than Star Wars.

Another much-discussed feat of technology is the resurrection of Sir Laurence Olivier as the film’s villain. Unfortunately, his brief appearance is underwhelming. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to modern technology resurrecting deceased actors for ‘new’ performances (not that it happens that often); but then again, what was done with Oliver Reed for Gladiator — four years before this — seemed more impressive than the small amount of hologram we see here, even though the digitally created shots were equally brief. It’s a shame, because using Olivier for this key role is quite neat, certainly better than casting a glorified extra. In fairness, then, it’s a part so small that very few appropriately-big names would agree to it, which perhaps permisses resurrecting Olivier after all

Among the real performances, the acting is a bit flat. Perhaps this is deliberately in-keeping with the emulated style, though Jude Law is always this bad so maybe not. Similar comments could be made of the screenplay, if one were being unkind. What it does manage is a good amount of humour — an essential part of the genre, as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you, but it’s by no means guaranteed in these over-serious times (thankfully, the likes of Star Trek and Transformers are occasionally breaking down this barrier to fun).

Breaking free of any self-imposed period constraints, Conran also produces a few exciting action sequences, such as a plane chase through the streets of New York. It’s incredibly hard to create spectacle these days, but Sky Captain occasionally manages it. There are also lots of fun little references to other things for the keen viewer to pick out. 1138 crops up, inevitably, but my favourite is some dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Sky Captain is a healthy dose of retro-styled fun. Perhaps that makes it an acquired taste, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 5

My review of the proof-of-concept short that inspired Sky Captain can be read here.