Thursday, June 12, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

Robert Stromberg's Maleficent: Taming the Witch, Disney-Style

Walt Disney, the spectacle-maker who made an entertainment empire out of cartoons based on fables and fairy tales in the public domain, needed a name for the magic-wielding woman that would terrorize Sleeping Beauty and her family that would represent her inexplicable malice.

Hence, maleficent, an adjective that literally means “doing evil or harm” was chosen to become the name of the villain. The character, donning a black slithering gown, a headpiece formed to look like devil horns, and the most disarmingly mischievous smile, has then represented unadulterated wickedness to kids who grew up watching Disney’s cartoons.

Disney died, to be replaced by his corporate heirs who inherited his shrewd business acumen. The commercial value of nostalgia was discovered. Hollywood was quick to grab the opportunity to earn a few more bucks off it. Now, we live in an age where myths and fairy tales enjoyed and re-enjoyed are now being retold and refashioned to suit contemporary ideologies and avaricious pockets.

Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, which reimagines Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the perspective of the evil witch, is thus hardly unique. It simply follows the commercialist and creative intent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man movies, and Zack Snyder’s Superman movies in attempting to redo familiar stories, by way of Winnie Holzman’s Wicked, the novel that told L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories from the perspective of the fictional universe’s misunderstood antagonist.

Modern perspectives are predictably introduced. Instead of concentrating on the prince-saves-the-princess angle that dominates the fairy tale, the film diverts into more feminist territory, where heterosexual romances are sidestepped for female solidarity. It is admittedly a fresh approach, one that produces for the film a lot of its more poignant moments where the clichéd phrase “true love” was removed from its more traditional connotation to mean something more worthwhile.

However, despite its progressive politics, Maleficent could still not escape the clutches of Disney’s happily-ever-after philosophy. The film was written to faithfully follow the story of Sleeping Beauty at least until it is still happy and harmless. It deviates only when Maleficent, played with admirable integrity by Angelina Jolie, withdraws from her temporary corruption and becomes the fairy tale’s protagonist.

Do not get me wrong. This is all good. It would have been better if Maleficent’s sudden change of heart, amidst the crime of cursing an innocent baby with eternal slumber, had more weight and had repercussions. Instead, the film simply tied things together neatly, with everybody happy in their CGI-rendered paradise. Had it not been for Jolie’s affecting performance, the witch’s deus ex machina metanoia would be utterly unbelievable and unconvincing.

It simply stinks of fakery, which sadly seems to be Disney’s current raison d’etre with all the movies it has recently produced that promote questionable optimism cloaked in token expressions of modern advocacy. Maleficent’s effect is at most, skin-deep. It does not, and could not penetrate the soul because it conveniently avoids engaging its characters with real morality and redemption.

Maleficent alludes to the concept that it is human frailty that creates villains. The film’s narrative points out that the witch’s transformation from glorious forest fairy to vengeful hag is the result of treachery that is fed by greed and ambition. Again, this is nothing novel. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), which has a human settlement disrupt nature spirits with its quest for resources, tackles the theme with more maturity and heft. Stromberg is content with surface-level rhetoric.

Maleficent imagines itself to be hip and modern. It is not. It still subscribes to Walt Disney’s archaic formula of the supremacy of happy endings, above everything else. Even a witch precisely named because she personifies all things vile and malicious deserves her happy ending. Ho hum. Wake me up when things get a little bit dirtier.

(First published in Rappler.)

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