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! ^

Super 8 (2011)

2016 #7
J.J. Abrams | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Before he started star warring and between bouts of star trekking, director J.J. Abrams teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg for this homage to the kind of movies Spielberg produced in the ’80s. Those films have endured down the decades; I’m not sure Super 8 endured as far as Abrams’ next lens flare showcase film. Which is a little bit of a shame because, by being Abrams’ most personal film, it may also be his best.

Set in the summer of 1979, the film follows a group of teenage boys making a zombie film, in particular Joe (Joel Courtney), whose mother died a couple of months earlier in an industrial accident. For their film’s love interest, the guys enlist Alice (Elle Fanning) and Joe begins to grow close to her, despite his dad (Kyle Chandler) blaming her dad for the death of Joe’s mother. While shooting a scene late at night, the kids witness a massive train crash, caused by their science teacher. With his dying words he warns them not to tell anyone what they witnessed. As the military descend on the wreckage and odd things begin to happen around the town, it becomes clear the train was transporting something very strange…

How much all this achieves Abrams’ goal of feeling like a genuine Amblin movie, I’m not sure. On the surface, not that much: the visual style is all too modern, not to mention the CGI. But, tonally, there is something there, which has somehow survived being filtered through the filmmaking process and made its way into the finished product — it’s a bit of that spirit of adventure; the kind of storyline and characters; and, actually, the way it holds back a little on the effects work. Several people cite The Goonies when talking about it, which just reminds me that I really ought to get round to seeing that. (The fact it’s absolutely loved by some, while increasingly I hear people bravely sticking their heads over the parapet to say, “it’s not really that good, you know”, intrigues me rather.)

Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on the more it runs away with itself, as characters dash back and forth all over the place, sometimes in credibility-stretching fashion (we never do see how a group of kids manage to escape a heavily-guarded military base and drive back to an evacuated and blockaded town). The adults stumble through the story to little dramatic effect; Joe’s dad even has to be secretly locked up for a good chunk of the film (with no other characters noticing his disappearance) so that his storyline can be paused until he’s wheeled out for his part in the climax. The grown-ups do serve a role — giving us a perspective on events that the kids lack, and being tied to the emotional arcs of the leads — but it wouldn’t have harmed anything to limit them to those functions, rather than trying to half-heartedly give them stories of their own.

The kids are quite likeable in their way, especially Courtney and Fanning, who have enough chemistry to keep their interactions the most engaging aspect of the film. In fact, if Abrams wasn’t the kind of filmmaker he is, an indie-ish real-world take on Super 8’s dramatic storyline (a bunch of friends making a short film over the summer holidays, also with all the other grounded emotional aspects of the movie) might’ve made for an even more effective, enjoyable film. (Somewhat ironically, it seems this was Abrams’ original intention: according to IMDb, his two ideas for a follow-up to Mission: Impossible III were a coming-of-age story or an alien-on-the-loose adventure. Presumably getting sidetracked into Star Trek gave him the time to decide to combine them.)

In some respects, the kids’ short film (which plays during the end credits) encapsulates the whole movie: a semi-thought-through SF/F plot, a tacked on emotional arc, the apexes of both tied together in the climax, and a couple of sometimes-shoehorned effects set pieces along the way. Yet for all that, it does enough right that I’d quite like to see Abrams attempt more work along these lines.

4 out of 5

J.J. Abrams’ most recent film, a little movie you’ve probably not heard of about something-or-other waking up (I forget the details), is out on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK today.