Monday, June 2, 2014

"Maleficent" Fairy Tale 411 (A Review - Part A - The Non-Spoiler Part & Why I Felt It Was Worth Taking My Kid to the "El Capitan" Presentation)

The OUABlog one-liner review:
Maleficent = perfectly wonderful family movie + #YesAllWomen + better-than-average-but-still-Disney

"Whaa..?" I hear you say.
Note: Before I forget - do click on the images of the props and set to see them full size. :) I'm amazed I got as many photos as I did, considering how packed it was!
Onto the "more than one line review - Part A":
So here's the thing: Maleficent, as a movie standing on it's own, is pretty solid and entertaining, but with some substance too. I didn't even have to rap myself on the knuckles to quiet my inner critic while watching (at least not half as much as I expected to.)
As far as a fairy tale goes it's probably better to think of it as the film equivalent of a novel using the Sleeping Beauty tale but that's actually a good thing for the film, as I'll (eventually) explain. 
What is this? It's a family fantasy film that is built on a fairy tale, as well as an older sense of Faerie. And it's great for kids, but it's also not primarily aimed at kids either, which is another reason it works better than (I) expected.
Here's what went right:
- it's far more family friendly than the marketing made it out to be without being a mainly-for-kids movie 
- it's very colorful in a delightful way throughout (yes there are dark scenes but the majority of the film is positive and bright) 
- there's a ton of humor (I had no idea we'd be laughing so often through the movie, especially at and with Maleficent!) 
- the fantasy-faerie world is wonderful and everything you wanted in both magical world building and in Froudian-creatures brought to life (and possibly the best portrayal of Olde Faerie mentality I've seen - with both the light beauty and the dark power) 
- the big issues are dealt with in a manner a 5 or 6 year old could manage (without trauma, yes, even the "big" ones) 
- Angelina Jolie (who is on screen for a huge percentage of the movie) is pretty much flawless in the role and engages the audience for every second she appears  
- the film has enough layers to show this isn't a throw-away money-making production but that someone (probably lots of someones, considering the level of work and attention to detail) cared a lot about this movie on many levels
- it's also, regarding the timing of it's release, serendipitously, on point with all of the hot-button social issues of "right now", from the power of love and the importance of family, to the very real issues brought to light via the #YesAllWomen hashtag in the aftermath of the tragedies in Santa Barbara. (I will discuss the specifics of the film with regard to this in Part B.)
It may be the fortuitous timing of the release against this social backdrop that is the reason it survives beyond initial blockbuster status as well, although, it deserves to for other reasons. No matter that it's not what people expected, or how it has changed the perception of a Disney icon, this film takes many more risks that Frozen did and should be recognized for it... but I'll get to that later.
Although, admittedly, we were in a audience of people highly inclined to love anything Maleficent, it wasn't just this crowd that came out beaming, having very much enjoyed the movie. Almost everyone's (general) immediate experience (including many critics, when they're being honest) has been, at the moments the credits are rising up the screen: "That was fun!" 
But it's also clear, while it may be an audience winner, why it's not an overwhelming critical success as well. It's only as you start thinking about things exiting the theater that you begin to have issues. 

Why? How can people enjoy the movie so very much only to have pulled it to shreds by the time they get home?
There are two main problems:
1) It's a revising of a classic Disney movie so comparisons will be made and nobody (but nobody) is going to "not compare" and be able to take it as a work all by itself. The problem with this is you will have people who are upset about any revisions and other people upset by not enough revisions. It's a no-win situation from either perspective. If Maleficent were the first film retelling a popular Sleeping Beauty story book, rather than a Disney film, it would likely be received as far more radical, and welcomed by critics as well.  
2) It's live action, and, in reading a lot of criticism the past couple of days of the film, it's been made apparent to me what the biggest downfall of making something as real as possible is: Unlike for animation, stop motion and muppets, (and also live storytelling), audiences do not automatically PARTICIPATE by approaching a viewing with the agreement to suspend disbelief. Instead, with live action, the requirement of believability for every image and execution of a scene is assumed and audiences naturally relegate themselves to witnesses only - passive, distanced, critical and disengaged on a personal level; that is, they don't bring their own imagination to the story, requiring it to have everything - which it rarely can, especially with regard to fantasy. What does that lead to? Nitpickiness, misunderstandings and a general lack of satisfaction because something remains missing: it's "them" or, more specifically "you", the audience, and their/your own contribution to the story. (Be sure to read my first starred point * at the bottom of the article by the way - there are exceptions.)
For my part, although I do agree with critics that the film was uneven in places, I've determined that most of the important elements (including those that a number of critics complain are missing) were actually there. While I, personally, might have handled the telling/showing of them differently, they still exist. The fault isn't that they were/are missing, but the the blame is shared somewhere between the Director/Editor/Producer who didn't make it clear and people can't see these elements if they're not literal/obvious to that person. (Note: this is taking into account that the Director and Producers made choices I would not - but that is because it is their film and their prerogative.) The thing is, if this had been animation, (ie not live action and CG doing it's best to look like live action - which, to their credit, it often did) people would be busy having their minds blown about how much was woven into the movie and Tumblr would be a-buzz with "OMG did you realize that Maleficent ABC'd in that scene??!" etc

The reverse is also true. If you took, for example, Disney's most recent animated success Frozen, and made it live action, it would have severely struggled. The story is clunky, unbalanced, badly resolved and has a ton of problems BUT these can be overlooked if the audience participate in the storytelling and bring their own levels of meaning to it, which they clearly have - in spades.
Fairy tales suffer the same issue: the more details one adds in a retelling, often the less clear the story becomes. Fairy tales are wonderfully distilled capsules of story and human experience wrapped in wonder cloaks and, the listener willingly suspends disbelief as soon as the words "once upon a time" are uttered, bringing their own flavors and interpretive lenses to them. Because the stories are then "ours" they grow increasingly interesting and, often, personal, so much so that we can't seem to help but retell them in our own way, adding details we initially saw in our mind's eye, flavoring them with our culture and upbringing, and exploring issues our hearts discovered and resonated with. It's not that these things are not there, but rather, that these things are what the individual readers and listeners bring to the stories. That's a large part of what makes them so very powerful. They adapt to the teller and the listener, both. It's when you write down that form or immortalize it in film, that is, capture it in one shape only so that telling becomes static, that it ceases to have as much power and resonance.
Simply put, when fairy tales are put on film, especially in "live form", there is rarely room for us to add our own details, our own flavor, our own emphasis and importance*. We are told: "this is how the story is, looks, goes and if you didn't see it there, it didn't exist/happen" and we are not engaged, except as observers. We have nothing to do with shaping the story. 
And this is the main reason I wanted to take my son to see this "fairy tale" (or whatever bit of fairy tale there was) as part of a whole experience, rather then just walking into a theater to watch a big screen. Though we aren't able to see movies regularly enough these days for a theater to seem routine (ka-ching$!) I still knew it would be worth making this "more" if I could. When I found out the El Capitan Theater were having a showing of props and set pieces from the movie at the theater, as well as a magic show and other little extras, my husband and I talked and agreed it was worth splurging for. We dressed up a little, took a huge drive into the city, walked the Hollywood Walk of Fame (and avoided the resident infamous characters), checked out the handprints and stars on the sidewalk, looked at all the fancy lit posters and, when we finally made it into the theater, took our time, despite the crowds (it was sold out) to look over all the details of all the props in the lobby and checked out the Sleeping Beauty Disney Parks model castle from every angle. The magic show beforehand made the theater space itself a "live space" instead of just a movie space and my little guy, already excited by the experience of the outing, was eagerly anticipating the movie by the time the it started. When the Sleeping Beauty castle from the film appeared at the beginning instead of just the usual Disney castle, my son was already engaged - "I know that castle! It's from the movie!"
Afterward, downstairs where the bulk of the props and the set pieces were, my son poured over every costume and pointed out things he recognized (as well as things he didn't) from the movie, reciting bits of the story, speculating on the scenes and musing over details. Although it's what I had hoped for, it worked better than anticipated. He completely enjoyed the movie and my husband, who miraculously avoided knowing almost anything about it (including that Maleficent had wings at all) was just as engaged. They both relived the story, reciting scenes, discussing aspects, musing on what might have been happening elsewhere etc

And it's for this reason that I also suggest considering it as the film equivalent of a novel that's written out of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, rather than a retelling of the fairy tale. Experiencing it like this and discussing it with props in front of us made it clear - this is one version of the story; not the be all and end all.
The opportunity also enabled me to discuss the tale version of Sleeping Beauty with my son as well and he is more interested than ever in the idea of nature beings and faeries but "...not the silly ones - the REAL ones." (More on the "sillies" tomorrow.)

I'll wrap this part of the review before I start talking specifics of story and film but suffice it to say, no matter what my mixed feelings are about Disney, when it comes to experiencing something, this company has it down. The Cast Members treated my son like he was special, like his opinion about the movie and all he saw was important. The made room for him and made sure he got to see everything he came to see, It's the same reason Disneyland and Disney World leave such an impression. It's real in a way that engages you and leaves a lasting impression. While it will help a lot that the film was solid family entertainment with enough fairy tale elements and layering to provide mental stimulation for my son** (and his parents - who he hears discussing all aspects of it), the fact that this experience engaged all his senses leaves me no doubt that Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent will have a lasting impression on him, in the best way. It was the closest we could get to having a personal storytelling for him of this alternate version of Sleeping Beauty and I couldn't be happier that we made it happen for a fairy tale.

Stay tuned for the "will be spoilery Part B" coming tomorrow. (Don't worry. I will mask them so you have a choice to read them or not.)

*This is not true of all film. Good directors who used stylized directing and work with images like poetry - choosing to imply as much as show, are successful in engaging our inner selves in the telling, but it's rare to see that in a mainstream film. It's usually the Indie filmmakers who, often by necessity, have to find a different, less literal way to tell the story, that are the most successful in doing so. They do't try to show everything, so the audience actually sees more.
** Today: conversations about spinning wheels and why it's important in Rumpelstiltskin as well as Sleeping Beauty - his out of the blue question, by the way, not mine.


  1. "considering it as the film equivalent of a novel that's written out of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, rather than a retelling of the fairy tale" -- Yes, this is how I approached the movie from the start, so I thoroughly enjoyed it! So did my three-year-old, Nux Gallica, who had her first theater experience. I hesitated to bring her without pre-screening, as it looked too scary for her age, but she is into films the way some kids are obsessed with rubber band looms. Beforehand, she told me, "Don't worry, Maleficent is not real. She's a nice mommy lady in a costume just pretending to be scary." Maybe this is because I read her a tabloid article as a bedtime story on vacation last week...

  2. Gypsy, with your insight about the more detail is added to a fairy tale, something is lost somehow, you have really hit the nail on the head about why I tend to be wary of fairy tale films. All I could say before is that I feared they would not be what I wanted them to be, but I think you explain it better:)

  3. Great post, very thought-provoking about how films have changed fairy tales. I hope you don't mind, but I referenced this post on my own blog to support a similar argument:

    The presentation you went to looks fantastic as well, I can imagine that it gave you much more insight into the film. Seeing the physical objects like that must have given you more connection to them, and the story. I wish I had been able to attend something like that!

  4. A great synopsis without giving away the story (and any secrets that are better enjoyed with the movie instead of someone spoiling it). I appreciate what you've said about it being a no-win situation. Sometimes I think we're so cynical that we won't allow anything to impress us. We've made it a foregone conclusion that we won't like something fantastical that we spend the whole movie (or book, or play) trying to find reasons to prove ourselves right. I hope to see it soon.