Review of “Maleficent”: the real New Age of entertainment

Summary:  As a break from the FM website’s usual fare of geopolitical realism, film critic Locke Peterseim continues his look at recent Disney films. He discusses the momentous revolution in the creative arts, equivalent to Ford’s development of the assembly line. Now they produce blockbuster films as an entertainment product, much as agricorps produce Velveeta as a cheese product. Today he reviews Maleficent, Disney’s second venture into Third Wave Feminism (after Frozen).

Maleficent Poster

Maleficent: Witches Be Crazy

By Locke Peterseim
Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly, 5 June 2014
Reposted here with his generous permission.

Last summer, upon surviving The Lone Ranger, I felt I’d finally come to some sort of Zen-like epiphany about these giant Disney marketing events masquerading as “movies”: They aren’t really films at all; not in any classic sense of what cinema is, what it means.

My weary separate peace with these packaged, pre-sold, cross-promoted, brand-leveraged, multi-quadrant, ledger assets hinges on the acquiescence that it’s okay to give up and just accept them as some sort of “promotional entertainment.”

In the most darkly brilliant of marketing feedback loops, they are driven by and then exist solely to perpetuate brand identity: namely that “Disney Magic.” Which of course, in turn, strengthens the corporate bottom line across all fields of merchandizing, broadcasting, and theme parking.

Look here what I went and wrote last summer about The Lone Ranger:

They are large. They are aggressively marketed spectacle. They are amusement rides built around merchandizing shelves. They are corporate ambition wrapped in franchise dreams. But they’re not bad films, because they’re not really films.

Princess Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty) in 1937 and 2014.
Princess Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty) in 1937 and 2014.

 

In trying to sub-categorize these behemoths, I’m desperately hoping to work some sort of mid-life end-run around the creeping cynicism that has all but engulfed my enjoyment of just about any expensive studio action-adventure-fantasy “entertainment” that revolves around big-star stunt casting and an overdose of hollow CGI “dazzle.”

The other night I watched Waking Sleeping Beauty, a surprisingly warty insider look at the Disney animation Renaissance of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, directed and told by long-time Disney producer Don Hahn. The documentary is a study of the epic over-sized ego clashes (Roy Disney Jr, Michael Ovitz, Jeffery Katzenberg, and the film’s co-producer Peter Schneider) that actually helped fuel and drive Disney Animation’s now-legendary rebirth, resulting in the stunning run of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and of course The Lion King.

Waking Sleeping Beauty (the original 1959 animated feature was the last Disney cartoon based on a fairy tale until 1989’s Little Mermaid) posits that the subsequent “second decline” of Disney Animation after The Lion King (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan) was because any clash of titanic egos ends up scorching and crushing the landscape around them.

But in fact two important things happened in the midst of the Disney Renaissance that led to its slow, steady erosion and whose effects can be felt today: the arrival of computer graphics (and the rise and triumph of then Disney corporate cousin Pixar), and the post-Aladdin increased use of celebrity voices in animation (also heavily boosted by Pixar).

By the early ‘00s, Pixar was rolling (Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles) as Disney hand-drawn animation was dying (The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet), but out of it all emerged a completely new form of Disney Cineplex product: The star-studded, live-action commodity cartoon.

Romance in Maeficent
Brenton Thwaites as Prince Phillip and Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora.

In 2003 the original Pirates of the Caribbean brought it all together: Take a known (preferably Disney-based) pop-culture product (here, an amusement park ride), enlist a charismatic oddball or outsider star (Johnny Depp), hire a genre director with a visual flair for live-action cartoons (Gore Verbinski), and wrap it all in the dazzling CGI spectacle. Stir, market, merchandise, then sit back and print money.

If there’s one thing Disney knows, it’s how to codify a formula and repeat it for maximum effect. So over this past decade there followed three more Pirates movies, Tim Burton and Depp’s Alice in Wonderland, Sam Raimi and James Franco’s The Great and Powerful Oz, and Verbinski and Depp’s Lone Ranger. (Not to mention Prince of Persia and John Carter.)

So while Waking Sleeping Beauty is a fascinating look at an important part of animation history, it’s just that: history. These days, as once-golden Pixar continues to stumble through the inevitable creative valley, post-Pirates Disney is not about Sleeping Beauty, it’s about Maleficent.

Itself once a Tim Burton project, Maleficent is penned by Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Mulan, and live-action Alice in Wonderland writer Linda Woolverton and helmed with dull visual competence by former effects and production designer and first-time director Robert Stromberg. Of course all of that behind-the-scenes “creative force” is secondary to Maleficent’s primary raison d’être and selling-point: Angelina Jolie as the eponymous “villainess.”

Over the years, Angelina Jolie has, like Depp, done a brilliant job leveraging a certain amount of semi-dangerous, “weirdo” outsider cred into shining movie-star celebrity.

Dragon in Disney's "Maleficent"
He’s the only effective good guy in “Maleficent”.

And, like Depp, Jolie also seems less and less interested in playing the movie-star and more interested in serious, artistically credible personal projects like her direction of 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey and this year’s upcoming Unbroken.

But when necessary, Jolie, once again like Depp, can still turn on the check-cashing, cache-preserving star power with dazzling effortlessness — her portrayal of Maleficent, a good fairy gone bad, is an actor’s light smorgasbord of wry wit, gleeful self-deprecation, and arch heartache. It’s all, like Depp’s blockbuster performances, neatly entertaining amid a lot of otherwise pointless clamor.

As for the rest of that pointless clamor, Maleficent is yet another revisionist fairytale that, like Wicked, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Disney/ABC’s own Once Upon a Time, purports to examine darker, more complex emotional and sociological themes.

At first glance, Maleficent, like Wicked, seems to be about how a trusting, free-spirited heroine turns “evil” (and, this being Disney, is later gloriously redeemed), but the script doesn’t have much interest in actually examining how good intentions and painful disappointments fester into villainous bitterness. They just do, alright?

For all Jolie’s skill at deftly turning tight emotional corners (all while sporting a horny dominatrix headdress and razor-sharp cheekbones that would send Benedict Cumberbatch scurrying for the whetstone), there’s only so much she can do with a character that — despite the title billing — is mostly on hand to orchestrate something something green magic CGI spectacle. Instead, Jolie, with a major costume-and-make-up assist, leverages her star image into a pleasingly stylish mix of old-Hollywood haughty Joan Crawford glamour and plucky post-feminist theory.

Sharlto Copley as King Stefan
The bad guy: Sharlto Copley as King Stefan

Rather than examine self-destructive Darth-Vader-like corruption, Maleficent focuses on how strong, independent women are betrayed and embittered by the deceptions of craven, cowardly men who must, out of fear of that feminine power, label their female opposites something rhyming with “witches.”

In this case, it’s Sharlto Copley’s man who would be king who quite literally clips Maleficent’s wings, but she’s redeemed from anything approaching actual villainy by her growing maternal love for Elle Fanning’s Aurora, the future Sleeping Beauty.

(After his 2009 breakout in District 9, Hollywood has never quite figured out what to do with the South African Copley — so once again here he snivels and schemes and chews up whatever CGI scenery Maleficent hasn’t turned to thorns.)

But as expected, all these female-empowerment themes are ultimately, like Jolie herself (who I suspect insisted on their inclusion), PR window dressing for the product — admirable as they may be, they amount to little more than the entertainment equivalent of British Petroleum sponsoring a nature preserve.

Jolie works hard (and impressively) to make Maleficent about something more with a performance that’s nicely nuanced in places — but it’s still chunked up by formulaic requirements and nonsensical narrative leaps. Anything approaching an idea is quickly starved out amid the numbing visual and emotional flatness of all that unrelentingly pretty CGI scenery (including chattering critters), Avatar-like flying scenes, LOTR-style battles and dragons, and the never-ending, insatiable need to service all four demographic quadrants (young, old, male, female) no matter how poorly it all hangs together.

Thistlewit, Knotgrass, and Flittle in Disney's "Maleficent".
Thistlewit, Knotgrass, and Flittle in Disney’s “Maleficent”.

(Things like Maleficent have me more convinced than ever that CGI, once the savior of fantasy films, is now slowly, steadily killing fantasy films.)

Like nearly every film these days with a budget over $100 million, from scene to scene there’s no real point or purpose in Maleficent other than franchising the brand commodity.

Born in the boardroom (“Angelina Jolie! As a Disney villainess! Boom, done! Lunch!”) and crafted by corporate committee, these films have all the right pieces, all the right players, and all the money in the world for dazzling spectacle, but they have absolutely no unifying sense of themselves.

And as with so many of its processed kin, days after seeing Maleficent, you won’t recall much beyond Jolie’s twinkling sneer under those amazing prosthetic cheekbones. To the extent you remember anything else, it’s getting harder to call what you saw an actual “film.”

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Because you want to know

The Differences Between ‘Maleficent’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty‘”, Joal Ryan, Yahoo Movies, 31 May 2014.

About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
  2. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
  3. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
  4. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe.
  5. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
  6. Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind.
  7. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
  8. Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much.
  9. “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us.
  10. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
  11. Fury: the big screen display of America’s love of war, & inability to understand it.
  12. Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.

Mirror

For More Information

See all posts about:

  1. Book and film reviews.
  2. Art, myth, and literature.

The Trailer

12 thoughts on “Review of “Maleficent”: the real New Age of entertainment

  1. Once again a critic looks for perceived flaws, rather than pure enjoyment. Once again, I have to say, Maleficent was a very good movie and Ms. Jolie did a wonderful job of portraying Maleficent. It’s too bad critics are so focused on themselves. They miss what audiences want. I would say the almost $800 million dollars this movie has made worldwide speaks volumes more than the irritating squeaks of the mouse in the house. Thankfully, the nay-sayers are not producers and directors. Otherwise, we’d probably have more technically ‘perfect’, scriptually boring, mundanely acted movies inflicted on us. Disney got it right this time. You didn’t. The proof is in the sales, not your opinions.

  2. Editor,

    Perhaps that is the problem with such critiques. The public is interested in entertainment value. Movies are made to entertain the public. That is why the cost of movies has risen to unimaginable costs. Bigger bangs, faster races, more blood and gore. I am a baby boomer who remembers when movies had intellectual value and quality acting vs explosions, gore and shear stupidity. I am NOT a Disney fan.

    Having said all of that, I found Maleficent to be very entertaining. It was good to see a story line that didn’t involve a strong female character, capable of dealing with issue without a man’s protection. I enjoyed seeing a story where the older woman wasn’t pitted against the younger woman as we see in almost all the fairy tales. The makeup and costumes were very well done. The CGI was detailed and magical. Ms. Jolie portrayed the character perfectly. Maleficent offered everything I was interested in seeing in a movie. It was entertaining… and THAT is why I rarely pay attention to reviews. My dollar, my dollar’s worth… and in this situation there almost $800 million’s worth opinions that agree. That is all that counts.

    1. Fran,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these things!

      The reviews here serve a different purpose. We use films as a mirror in which we can see ourselves — America, our society. This works exactly as your describe! Hollywood makes films to entertain, and the box office steers them to provide what we want. Analysis of successful films — and nobody is more successful today than Disney (under its many brands) — we see what we like, what we value, what we fear. By comparison with films of past generations we can see how we’ve changed.

      The big screen magnifies life for easier examination, showing us things that otherwise we might never see.

  3. This review, bitter and petty as it is, misses the point entirely. If FM’s purpose is to “use films as a mirror in which we can see ourselves — America, our society,” he would have done better to mention the intriguing role reversals in this film.
    In the original 1959 film “Sleeping Beauty,” the young male prince represents the dynamic successful character who strives and wins in the end, while the resentful female witch Maleficent represents the stay-at-home women of the 1950s bored with their lives and envious o the opportunities available to men (but not women) in that era. The 1959 film assures audiences that no matter how bitter and vindictive the stay-at-home wives get, they can’t derail the glorious march of American progress or white males. In short, the 1959 film sings paeans to the existing white male power structures and assures us that women who exhibit dissatisfaction with the 1950s-era existing order are callow harridans doomed to ail in their efforts to upset the Best of All Possible Worlds (namely, the one-income male breadwinner with stay-at-home unemployed wife).
    Fast forward 55 years and the young woman Maleficent now represents the dynamic successful character who strives and wins in the end, while the resentful ineffectual male king represents the stay-at-home underemployed househusband of the 2014s. The 2014 film assures the audience that the new economic order with successful well-educate women an resentful underemployed less well-educated men, is the Best of All Possible Worlds and hunky-dory for both men an women, if only those pesky annoying men would accept their new low-paid roles and loss of status in the brave new economic world of the 2010s.
    Notice the propaganda function: in the late 1950s the original Disney film covertly criticizes on unemployed wives for daring to protest their underpaid low-status roles in American society, while in the 2014s remake the new Disney film covertly criticizes underemployed men for daring to protest their underpaid low-status roles in American society.
    For the underlying statistics, see “Women’s college enrollment gains leave men behind,” Pew Research, 6 March 2014.

    1. Thomas,

      What a weird interpretation of both the 1959 and new films. I suggest you go back to the original, evolved during the 14th & 15th centuries. That might give your a more accurate understanding.

      As for the current status of women, that’s been extensively discussed here (in some of the most-seen posts):

      1. Women dominating the ranks of college graduates – What’s the effect on America?, 7 July 2009
      2. A better answer to “why women outperform men in college?”, 8 July 2009
      3. Update: women on top of men, 27 October 2009
  4. I have to say, Thomas, I could feel my eyes rolling back in my head with your post. I’m actually not sure what I read but people see things differently and clearly you have a different perspective. Not quite sure I understood it but that’s neither here nor there. Provocative thoughts are good.

  5. And that is why I like to keep things simple. I pay to see something. I like it? Great! I got my money’s worth. I hate it or consider it mediocre? Oh Well! To each their own is right. For me, whether it’s literature or a movie, my first priority is enjoyment. The academia, perspectives, opinions, etc. of others is irrelevant. Now, if I want to dissect these items during discussions with others, that’s fine. My point in all of these exchanges is that movie critics, book reviewers, etc. seem to dissect books for everything but the enjoyment factor, while viewers/readers are paying to be entertained and to escape reality for awhile. Thank you for your time in all this. Now I am going to put my Maleficent DVD in my computer and enjoy this movie again since I’ve spent so much time defending it. Have a good day.

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