Monday, March 23, 2015

Let's Talk About... Maleficent-the-Movie (a very delayed conversation with Christie of "Spinning Straw Into Gold")

I have invited Christie of Spinning Straw Into Gold over to our corner of the web to talk Maleficent. That is, Maleficent-the-movie, not Maleficent-the-classic-Disney-character, and not which is actually a whole other conversation...

Gypsy: 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? ;)

She replied:

Christie: 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!

While I never got around to posting a proper Part B "spoilery" review before I had to disappear for a while last year, you will get a good sense of a few of my thoughts as I "chat" with Christie (finally!).

Her review was titled "Bored to Death" so, from my notes, here's my part of the conversation, though you may want to read her post first, so you can see her POV and know what I'm referencing.

Just imagine Christie, holding her newest sleeping Prince-ling, kindly indulging me, munching on digital scones and sipping cyber coffee as I talk...

Also, you should be aware: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Thanks for the review! I'm curious what other fairy tale people think too and so here is my response (and please imagine we are sitting at a table having coffee & scones, discussing it all - my response is intended to be conversation rather than rebuttal because,really, I'm just glad we can talk fairy tales!). 

Anyway, I will - weirdly - say that while I understand exactly where you're coming from and that I think many of your criticisms are valid, I don't really agree overall. As my seven year old said to me today "'s not the REAL Sleeping Beauty story, just one idea about it.." While I too was very disappointed Maleficent didn't turn into a dragon herself (I immediately wrote out three different and valid ways that could still have happened within that premise and context), if you didn't know she was "supposed" to turn into a dragon it wouldn't have been as irksome. In fact, it may have made perfect sense that it happened the way it did.

That said - I totally get where you're coming from with the boredom. It didn't help that it started with a completely unnecessary Narrator, as well as far too early in the actual story. (I've learned to give Hollywood movies about 20 minutes of unnecessary prologue/filler before they get to the real thing - ridiculous, but there you go.) Disney (these days) tends to not trust it's audiences so over explains or over simplifies and leaves out a lot of subtlety as a result. That said, in this case, seeing many of the critic reviews, I have to wonder if that isn't justified. The movie - by itself and separate from Sleeping Beauty (of Disney or fairy tale) generally succeeds. Considering, too, it was a first time Director I would have to say, if it had been my film, I would have been happier than not. However I do get the serious sense that scenes were cut *much* shorter than they should have been, and that too much time was given to the wrong things like flying scenes (nice, but we got it, thanks) as well as unnecessary prologues. 
I'm still a little astonished at the lack of understanding that critics in general have shown about the old world and belief of faerie, which was a very large part of the "world building" and premise. (Much of the 'lore' of the movie premise was based off 'olde worlde' views of Faerie and specifically Spenser's The Faerie Queene). Perhaps my Australian & UK leanings skewed me toward having this as a normal part of my fairy tales and stories but Faerie was a formidable unknown world/dimension that scared many common people, or at least, they had a very healthy respect for it. While I think stating that it was set in Scotland was unnecessary, (too specific!) it did also make it clear (to my viewing group anyway) that this was a peoples that lived uneasily alongside the border of fairy, whose lives contained many little rituals and offerings/petitions to (rarely seen) faeries, so that their human lives wouldn't be beset with additional bad luck from the Fae. Perhaps this is one of the big mistakes made: that it was assumed people would automatically know this - but it turns out they don't. 
I discovered, interestingly, and after the fact of seeing the movie, that one of the two novel retellings, includes an additional (!) prologue scene that is all about a shepherd and his son leaving a fairy offering from their lunch to keep the wee folk happy. The set up in the book is clear and sets the stage for conflict, uneasiness, wariness and mistrust on both sides, as well as extreme measures by faeries who don't tend to temper their responses but are either for or against you.* 
Another interesting thing that I sort of got a sense about in the movie but not very clearly, is that in both novels, the 3 faeries ask for asylum from Faerie (essentially they betray and abandon their home and fellow folk) for the comforts and seeming growing power of the human king. In the movie I really believe they are *intended* to be shown as caricatures as BOTH what people think fairies are (small, pixie-dust laden, 'helpful' etc) AND also what we really don't want them to be (selfish, capricious, lacking a soul and unreliable). Everything from the way they were designed, to their dialogue to their motivations and focus during the movie suggested these are the sorts of fairies you DON'T want to be allied with. This, however, seems completely lost on most folk, which would say the Director did a bad job of communicating the most basic thing about them. The whole point was that, thank goodness! Aurora's godmother/s were NOT these awful fairies at all.
I have to say I liked the thorns around Faerie. It was for protection rather than to be used as a weapon - which again works better with what earlier versions of Sleeping Beauty had. What, again, could have been clearer is that King Stefan also surrounded his castle with iron thorns (missing a clear visual for that Mr. Director!) and plated it in iron so it was toxic to the fae (yes - giant plot hole for the good fairies getting in at the end but anyway...). There were parallel set ups all through the movie but some just weren't very clear. The wings, too, were bound in iron and glass, and they only moved when Aurora reached out to them (which is supposed to be a huge metaphor and it's an excellent one. They also end up saving each other which is great from the usually-passive Sleeping Beauty criticism as well).

Diaval said a lot without using actual words, which I think was also the point. Though he started as a willing slave for Maleficent there's no way, especially in that era & setting, that a master would let their slave talk and behave toward them that way if they didn't have some sort of friendship and respect for them. When the final facing of Stefan arrived and she told him it wasn't his fight, basically freeing him of his slave status (another shift toward good for her) he essentially said: "You idiot -  don't you know by now that you're not alone any more?" It was subtle but it humanized her a lot and gave us a male/female relationship that developed without any sexual tension (the scene with them flying together - both free - at the end was great, and perhaps should have been the final one, but I digress..)

Your concern that this movie missed the point of "there is evil and ugliness in the world, just as there is hope and unspeakable beauty" - was actually what the whole movie was about as well. They even said it out loud. It's just that instead of the evil being Maleficent, it was King Stefan who not only made poor choices (like Maleficent also did) but refused to turn away from them and look for another path (which is the big turn for M). Your last paragraph before the poem was beautiful and the perfect argument for the movie - even with it's two-dimensional villain faults. But then it can only be considered that way if you let the movie be it's own entity apart from the fairy tale and Disney's own animated movie as well. (Note: in the script Stefan originally killed the king by smothering him with a pillow when he laughed at Stefan's offering of the wings, assuming he would then succeed to the throne - that's also in the books). 
The one ridiculous thing that I agree on with everyone was just wrong, is that Maleficent's "real" name was still Maleficent. That made NO sense at all (I cannot find any way the name "Maleficent" can be seen as 'good'), and seems to be this giant oversight. She didn't even need a proper name at the start (you know how sketchy giving your real name can be anyway - people in fairy tales often let themselves be labeled by others, rather than reveal their true name - it would have worked if she hadn't said her real one) and yet she has to be introduced with that name. #justno
My other big negative note would be that THE major marketing point was just outright wrong, therefore misleading and ultimately when people are processing it, confusing: Maleficent was not "evil"  or "wicked" and never became the true definition of such. She did some terrible things, yes, but it was clear she was making poor choices from a place a serious pain. The entire point of the movie was that she didn't let herself become exactly that (while Stefan, in contrast, did.). I think this marketing ploy alone, while "delicious" and tapping into what a lot of people DID want to see, just wasn't true. (And now people are both angry about that or confused.) Again, a major point people just didn't get is that it was intended to be a family movie - for all ages - (heck, it didn't dawn on me that's what they were trying to do until Angelina Jolie said she was looking forward to being in a movie that her whole family could see - even the little ones!) and while older people and teens might LOVE a movie about someone truly wicked and permanently twisted in some way (eg Batman Origins) even to the point of seeing her get her comeuppance, to focus on that story for a family movie (especially with that person as the main character) just isn't appropriate. So they didn't. But that's not what they said they were doing either. 

So, ironically, many people were set up for disappointment.
Overall the movie had most of what it should have had, but not enough. But it also shouldn't need supplemental notes from novels in order to make it's point either. It just didn't have it in the right proportions and at times both underestimated the audience and then overestimated them. The film took risks with content and themes that even Walt himself would have been concerned about doing but as a result it resulted in being "a better film than it should have been". As we all know, children's books are harder to write than adult ones and the same goes for film, especially if you're trying to make something more than throwaway entertainment. I think the film succeeded as much as it did because of Angelina Jolie's involvement and attention to detail, as well as her phenomenal acting of the part, but with a more seasoned director I think it would have done better still.
Time will tell how this really pans out. As it stands audiences are generally in the thumbs up category while 1st critic rounds are not. 2nd critic rounds, however, are not as quick to dismiss it though. While they're not saying it's "good" in general, more and more are agreeing that for all it's (MANY!) faults, that we need more films like Maleficent, with that heart, message and progressive thinking - just done better.

Now, the important thing: "Would you like an extra scone?" ;)

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss with a fairy tale friend!

* There are whole fairy tales about fairies who were invited to a banquet but were a) given the wrong plate instead of the one they wanted of so had a tantrum and held a grudge for generations or, b) were left standing at the gate too long to be welcomed personally by the King, so got upset. [In the tale I'm thinking of specifically, this is ironic because the King has gone to great lengths to make sure ALL the faeries are invited so not a single one would get upset, but the list is so long that he hasn't even finished reading off the invites to go out before the first ones start arriving.. and causing trouble!]


  1. If they were going to give the fairy a name before she was tagged with the name Maleficent, it should have been Carabosse. I mean, they're already calling the princess Aurora so why not embrace the Tchaikovsky version just a little bit more?

  2. Jennifer D. BushroeMarch 23, 2015 at 12:02 PM

    I have to agree with Christie on this one—I was bored in Maleficent too! I’m so glad to hear I wasn’t the only one, because it seems like everyone I speak to really enjoyed the film. I remember being bored by the presence of like 3 or 4 scenes dedicated to Aurora just playing with the fairy creatures in the moors—i.e. after the 1st scene, we get that the fairies are cute and that Aurora is innocent, let’s move on! Speaking of Aurora: She was such a flat character; I didn’t care about her at all. I have to admit, some of my apathy is probably due to the fact that I had high expectations for the film, so when I was viewing it, I kept thinking, ‘I just need to hang in here for a little longer—the cool stuff, the game-changing stuff, is right around the corner.’ And then the movie ended, and I felt that while they’d certainly made some changes from the original storyline and original character motivations, they hadn’t made any great leaps or bounds that would warrant this retelling in the first place. In summary: I was underwhelmed.

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