Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bored to Death

A Review of Disney's Maleficent

The first thing I do after watching a movie is to head over to Rotten Tomatoes to peruse the film reviews by proper critics.  The second thing I do, if it is a fairy tale movie, is to hit up all my fairy tale blog peeps for a more balanced perspective.  Sadly, my colleagues have been rather silent on the matter, with a few exceptions, so I suppose I ought to help get the ball rolling.

Before we go on, let us first note:  Here there be spoilers.

We've been hearing about Maleficent for years, but in the end my experience of the film can be summed up in one word: bored.  I don't know if I'm the best judge of entertainment, since I have a peculiar and finicky taste, but from the opening voice-over to the ending credits, I found little to hold my attention.  If it had not been for the pretty costuming and talented actresses, I might have lost interest entirely.  It was just all very tepid, underneath the fancy CG.  I didn't feel there was much at stake.  Maleficent lost her wings, and her love, but she was good and happy before she met Stefan and during his absence.  If she could walk into the castle to curse a baby, surely she could have retrieved her wings while she was at it.  Even the curse is tamed to a sleep-like death, without a desperate, last minute intervention from a good fairy.

"Mom, is that you?", source

The supporting characters are boiled down to their lowest common denominators, becoming tedious distractions rather than tools to help the story along.  Certainly not characters in their own rights, with complexities and inner goings-on.  

Stefan  is a kind of caricature born out of the necessity for a villain, and his motivation is weak.  The filmmakers need to give us a little bit more to work with if they want us to meet them in the middle; it's hard enough to believe that a kind boy, who would throw away his iron ring because it hurt a magical creature he only just met, would then become so heartlessly ambitious so as to turn around and try to kill the same creature, someone he cared for enough to have spent time growing up with her.

The pet raven is given a speaking voice by occasionally taking the form of a human but still doesn't have much to say.

In the end, Maleficent and Aurora alone are given room for growth and exploration, while the other characters and plot developments move around like props.  But even poor Aurora's character is charming and bland.  Her greatest moment is when she speaks out to the witch hiding in the shadows and does not recoil from her.  Not much of a monumental and memorable game-changer.

For me, the most engaging moment of the whole movie was when Maleficent stands over the sleeping Aurora and wills her curse undone, only to have it thrown back in her face.  And I credit all that to Ms. Jolie's powerful acting.  (Also done well in the moment she realizes her wings have been taken from her.  Maybe a tad melodramatic, but so wrenching and real that it made me hurt for her!)

Adam of Fairy Tale Fandom writes,

[Maleficent is] about two people and how their hearts become darkened by ambition, anger, bitterness and revenge. It’s also about how one of them starts to regain some light through exposure to someone who is good and innocent.

and I think he's absolutely right.  But I feel like the key relationship, between Maleficent and Aurora, is not given any time to develop, what between Maleficent watching her in her sleep and Aurora playing in the Moors with the magical creatures which are all show and no soul--the eeriness of Faerie is lost in this film, and I'd like to think I've cultivated a good radar for it.  In Brave, for instance, that otherworldliness remains intact.  It's hard for me to suspend disbelief and get behind Aurora's running away to the magical Moors forever, when it's just.  So.  Boring.

laughing and twirling and playing with magical creatures can only entertain me for so long

Besides that, there were a lot of other little frustrations.  How did the writers choose which elements of their original movie to keep?  When does one draw the line?

"We won't have Maleficent turn into a dragon, but we still need a dragon, so we'll have someone else be it."

Or, "there's no need for thorns around the castle, but it's such a major element to the original, so we'll have thorns protecting Faerie instead."

Even the spinning wheel is chosen because Maleficent happens to see it when placing the curse.  I much prefer the mystery of not knowing to that.  Why would a benign fairy even be named Maleficent, for that matter?  I hoped it would be a name she took on, as she did her new staff and cloak.  But apparently her parents had a strange sense of humor, or else didn't have a dictionary on hand at her christening.

irrelevent but still interesting, source

When I was a little girl, I lived and breathed Sleeping Beauty.  It was my absolute favorite Disney movie.  I wanted to be Aurora/Briar Rose.  And I never wanted or needed an explanation for the, well, maleficence of Maleficent.

While I'm all for revisionist re-imaginings and villainous back stories, I worry this new trend is overlooking an important aspect of fairy tales: the fact that there is evil and ugliness in the world, just as there is hope and unspeakable beauty.  To try to reason away these things (or, as the case may be, relegate them to a bland, mortal antagonist) steals a little bit of their wonder, and it robs us of one of the great consolations of fairy tales.  Whatever the reasons may be for them, dragons exist, and so do wicked fairies.  Yet there is always hope: a low door in the wall, a maiden's tears; a magic circle, a fairy godmother; a hole in the spell, one last gift-bearer overlooked and forgotten.  The bad is not absolute, though it may seem impenetrable as a wall of thorns.

And even death becomes only sleep in the end.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.



  1. I just wrote this whole big response to your post, pretending I was sitting down discussing it all with you over coffee and scones (so great to have the opportunity to talk it over with a fairy tale friend!) but your comment box yelled at me with red words that I wrote too much. (I couldn't even split it up!) So.. I hope you don't mind, but I will go over to my blog soon - link to your review and respond with my crazy-long comments (don't worry - I copied them all), answering from there. It's a little different and informal but maybe you (and others) can view it as an out-of-sync round table sort of discussion. And by that, I mean you're welcome to come comment in return if you'd like.
    What I'm missing most about seeing the film is NOT having a conversation live with fairy tale people! I don't care if we all agree or disagree - I'd just love to have a conversation and hear everyone's thoughts. You up for digital scones and coffee? ;)

    1. Digital coffee--all the time, all the places! Thanks for the invite. I'm excited to talk about it with other fairy tale-ers, and maybe you'll change my mind!

  2. I personally thought the movie was amazing. It's a different version of the fairytale we all know. It doesn't negate all the other versions.

    "Let us tell an old story anew" - that is the heart of fairytale. These stories are magic because they CAN be "told anew" over and over again.

    I think it doesn't matter that the story elements were changed - the raven, the curse, the thorns and the dragon - they are able to be changed around a bit because that's how tales are told. Every talespinner tells a story differently. Some parts remain the same, some do not. An example from "real" fairytales includes the differences and similarities between the story "Bluebeard" and "Fitcher's Bird". Or "Mr Fox" and "The Robber Bride".

    1. You do have a good point, Laura. I guess the difference between Mr. Fox and the Robber Bride and Malefecient and Sleeping Beauty is that the former is organic, while the latter feels forced. I suppose that's not something one can prove, but the whole movie felt very forced to me, not natural. But like I said, I'm a picky movie-goer, I do admit!

  3. Well, you know you've made it when other fairy tale bloggers quote you in their posts. Thanks.

    I can see your points. I wasn't particularly bored by it. Part of me did want to see Maleficent stay evil throughout because, well, some people just can't be saved (though, I guess that was King Stefan's role). However, that's the beauty of reviewing things. People are able to state their opinions and the reasons for their opinions without being told they're wrong. And there are probably no reviewers, or people for that matter, who have not had an opinion that others disagreed with.

    1. LOL, Adam! We're a tight-knit community, and we look after our own! ;)

      I wonder if I shouldn't give it a second viewing just to even things out a bit. Don't have the money for that, though, so I'll have to wait 'til it's out on Netflix!

  4. I enjoyed the movie, but was rather surprised by the film's simplicity. On one hand, I miss the character and world development that other fantasy films deliver. But on the other hand, I think the limited details allowed us to explore the 2 characters that the film was really about, Maleficent and Aurora. I wish that we had some more moments between Aurora and her father to contrast the moments she had with Maleficent, though.
    And your last bit about fairy tales needing and portraying the evil and ugliness in the world is exactly what saddens me about the all these revisions and redemptions of evil characters in fairy tales. I think there's a fine line between creating characters with complex and intricate motivations and completely obliterating the purpose of their evilness in the fist place, something that I think ABC's "Once Upon the Time" would pay more attention to.
    Anyway, thanks for posting this! Loved reading your thoughts on it.

  5. Great post - you've raised some interesting questions, and made me think about the film a little differently. I didn't hate it, but I felt there were a few things not quite right somehow & couldn't put my finger on them.

    I agree with you about the Moors. They have no personality, they're just like a generic stereotype of a fairy world thrown in so the filmmakers could include pretty graphics. Pretty, but dull. It feels like the fairy creatures have no will, they're just there.

    Also love your point about how Maleficent could have just taken her wings back instead of cursing Aurora. She's clearly powerful enough to do that, so it begs the question! I also think that the phrase 'sleep like death' is a bit clumsy. Plus it seems a bit of a cop out - which is it, sleep or death? Can't make our minds up, so we'll just use both.

    And you're right about her name - I never realised that before haha! It doesn't make sense for the kind fairy she was born as to be called that.

    However, I think that overall it's an interesting interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Not an entirely credible one, but still it's made an attempt to be innovative. I like the idea of explaining Maleficent's back story, and I think her character is portrayed very well, but the story is rather weak in places when you stop to analyse it.

    1. Over-analysis in the entertainment industry? Guilty!

      I'm probably not the primary target audience for such a movie, I'm one of those annoying people that tends to guess the plot a third of the way through the movie! I once walked out of Daredevil because I was so bored! :P


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