We recently saw the new Cinderella movie. This is the third of Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic animated features. The first being Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the second being Maleficent. You can be forgiven for thinking that one of the two Snow White movies released back in 2012 was a Disney film. I had assumed that Mirror Mirror was, and it wasn’t until I double-checked things for this post that I found out any different. However, I did see it and I didn’t see Alice in Wonderland, so I’m gonna stick with my plan of reviewing it alongside the other two “princess” films.
Not that I have a whole lot to say about Mirror Mirror. I went in expecting it to be just okay, and it was a bit more enjoyable than that. Like, maybe a 6 out of 10 rather than the 5 I was anticipating. In particular, I couldn’t help enjoying the dwarfs* — their bickering group dynamic was as amusing as their teamwork in action was fun to watch. Otherwise, I don’t remember much. It wasn’t too dark. It felt like there was an actual relationship between Snow White and the Queen, at least as people who had to put up with one another prior to the start of the film. I can’t comment on how good it is for kids beyond pointing out it’s PG rating; RU would have been, maybe, 18 months old or so when we saw it.
I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise, especially when I have so much more damning to do. So let’s move on.
Disney’s live-action version of their Sleeping Beauty story is Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role as the villainous evil fairy from the animated film. In this movie, however, the focus is on Maleficent herself. We’re shown her backstory, her relationship with King Stephan (Sleeping Beauty’s father), and a new take on the Sleeping Beauty tale (which, here, is just one piece of a larger story).
Now, I don’t think I’ve seen Sleeping Beauty (the animated classic) since I was very young, and I may not have ever seen it more than once. I don’t remember most of the film at all but have a fairly vivid recollection of a few snippets — mostly from the end when Prince Phillip battles the evil Maleficent. At the time, I found it quite frightening. When she calls upon all the powers of Hell (and it really stuck out to me that she said “Hell” — have never forgotten that for some reason) and turns into that dragon I figured Prince Philip was up Crap Creek without a canoe. Or even a paddle. Those bits really stuck with me and, probably as a result, I’ve always found Maleficent to be the most powerfully evil and terrifying of all the Disney villains (even topping Chernobog — and congratulations if you can name the Disney film he’s in without looking it up).
When I saw the trailers for Maleficent, I thought it looked pretty good. Maybe it even had the potential to be very good. Angelina Jolie seems like she’d excel in the role, even getting her voice’s modulation just right. The idea of flipping the story around to focus more on the villain is interesting and has been done well in the past. The Wife and I were cautiously optimistic when we went to see it in the theater (without the kids, fortunately). So what did we think?
Maleficent sucks. Don’t let anyone you love waste 98 minutes of their life watching it when there might be some dental surgery they’ve been putting off that they could get around to instead. If there’s a bright center of the universe, this movie plays at the theater it’s farthest from. Seriously, I can’t malign this film enough.
The whole thing is like bad Angelina Jolie fan fiction. The title character manages to be both the hero and the villain. And I don’t mean that she’s some complicated anti-hero. No, she’s the goodliest good guy and the baddest bad guy in the story, it just depends which scene you’re currently watching. When she shows up at Aurora’s christening to lay her curse on an innocent baby, she’s as wicked as it gets**. Her antagonist — who is primarily King Stephan — is just malignant and vain, and can’t match the depths of Maleficent’s darkness. In fact, in the entire world presented by the movie, no one is as interesting or dynamic as Maleficent. To put it another way, the film is full of bland, one-dimensional characters, except for one great big Mary Sue.
The biggest failure of Maleficent is that no one is given any real motives for anything they do, other than Maleficent herself. The filmmakers clearly wanted to make this apparently evil character more sympathetic and complex by showing, through her history, that she has reasons for what she does. But they forgot to do that with all the other characters.
Shall we consider King Stephan? He meets Maleficent when they are both children and he’s wandered into the fairy (faery?) realm from the adjacent human kingdom. He’s in trouble because he’s been caught attempting to steal a gem that was just lying around on the ground. It’s forbidden to remove anything from the fairy land — it belongs to them — even though fantastic jewels are just left to litter the ground like burger wrappers behind the McDonald’s. I think this incident was supposed to establish that the orphaned, rag-wearing, filthy Stephan is greedy. At no point does the film attempt to show his side of things or give him a justification. He doesn’t say, “Well no one seems to actually own this and if I take it back where I’m from and sell it, I won’t have to eat cold garbage and sleep in the sewage ditch anymore. I don’t suppose you could give me a hot meal and a warm blanket?” Nope, he has no motivations, just character flaws.
I was prepared to go on about the movie’s malfeasance in grinding detail. About how the good fairies who raise Aurora (the sleeping beauty herself) and are charged with her safety are portrayed as quarreling idiots who ignore a crying baby. Or how Prince Phillip is treated as merely a pretty boy toy whose kiss [SPOILER ALERT] can’t awaken Aurora because only Maleficent’s maternal love can be powerful enough for that (which makes it kind of creepy, or at least shallow, that Phillip and Aurora are still paired up at the end). I was going to lay out all the unexplainable idiocy that drives the story whenever Stephan shows up, warping the plot like a black hole bends light. (If he’s so concerned about Aurora’s well-being that he puts her in a fairy-run witness protection program why doesn’t he give a crap about her when she comes back to him on the day the curse is supposed to trigger? Oh, right, because Maleficent has also shown up and she’s so much more interesting.) However, if I were to delve into that level of detail about all the ways Maleficent sucks, I’d pretty much be writing about that full-time and would have to change the name of this blog to www.maleficentsucks.com. (Which, it turns out, hasn’t been registered yet, so I’ll leave that on the table for one of you to pick up and run with.) Instead, let me just discuss one more malfunction that I found especially irritating.
King Stephan is just the premiere example of what all the other people in the human kingdom (which is probably named something like Surly or Crapland) are like. Everyone is a festering boil of pettiness and vice wearing drab earth-tones. Stephan’s soldiers are cowards and/or mindless thugs. The sons of the previous king were drooling over which one of them would inherit the crown upon his death. At one point the kingdom goes to war with the fairies next door. Why? We’re never told, but we’re left to assume it is either due to an irrational hatred of the magical creatures or a lust for the resources their land has an overabundance of. I like to imagine it’s because the fairy creatures have been nipping over the border to steal human children but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a deleted scene where the king finds out his polling numbers are low and decides a war is the best way get the public’s support again. The only positive example of a human being (besides Prince Phillip, who I think was from some other country, so he doesn’t count) is Aurora, who is both pretty and nice — though that’s probably just because she was practically raised by Maleficent.
What chaps my hide so much, though, is how this combines with the opening narration of the film. We’re told at the very beginning that this story takes place in a human kingdom inhabited by “people just like you”. That’s right, you can relate to these despicable, small-minded people because they’re just like you. You big jerk.
Okay, enough of that. I’m sure none of you wanted to spend so long reading about how passionately I regret wasting two hours of childcare on Maleficent. I sat down to write this because I wanted to talk about Cinderella.
But it’s real late now, so stay tuned and I’ll post about that next time.
*Dwarves or dwarfs? I know that contrary to what years of reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons has taught me about spelling, in the Disney version the plural of “dwarf” is “dwarfs.” Mirror Mirror is clearly a take not on the original Snow White fairy tale itself but on the version of it we all know from the 1937 animated feature, so I will continue to use “dwarfs” for it. Even though it should be “dwarves.”
**This is the best scene of the film, which isn’t surprising since it’s the only one that is actually from Sleeping Beauty and it’s played pretty close to the original. As you might guess, Jolie provides an excellent performance here, oozing sinister power while delighting in her own maliciousness. Even the backstory you’ve suffered through to get to this point finally works as context to add another layer to the scene. It’s a shame the rest of the movie isn’t as good, and it is not worth watching just for this one bit.