The Last Jedi is a Messy Masterpiece
“And I know it’s true; that visions are seldom what they seem…”; that is one of the more memorable verses from the theme of the original, animated Disney film Sleeping Beauty. Fifty-five years later, it’s covered in creepy, moaning fashion by Lana Del Rey; a scarier twist on the song for, well, a scarier twist on the movie. Indeed, Disney’s supposed “true story” behind one of it’s greatest villains is seldom true to the vision that most of its audience grew up with; and hardly reaches that movie’s quality. However, it may very well be more of an interesting movie, and deserves more than to be overlooked.
Maleficent is the latest film to reinvent a classic Disney fairytale as a darker, edgier, action fantasy, starring an A-list actress; a genre that includes Snow White and the Huntsman, Oz, the Great and Powerful, and Alice in Wonderland. To be fair, Maleficent is a better movie than those three; and may be on a quick track to prove more successful.
In this dark reimagining, Maleficent is described as the protector of the Moors; a wooded land of pixies and fairies that is meant to stand in opposition to the neighboring Kingdom of Men. A major effort is made to distinguish the fanciful naiveté of the Moors with the industrial, capitalistic and greed-driven kingdom. The two are naturally separate, until Maleficent, depicted as an impish young child with gorgeous wings and enormous devil horns, falls in love with a little human boy named Stefan.
When the two grow into adults, played by Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley, they are torn apart by a vicious war between the two lands; which only ends when Stefan betrays Maleficent and steals her wings; allowing him to become King. Meanwhile Maleficent, broken and grounded, retreats to the shadows and grows in power; swearing revenge on the human world. By the time she has returned to the Moors, she is the draconic villainess we all remember. And not a moment too late; as the King announces he is having a child….
It’s safe to say Maleficent has been the subject of more discussion than nearly any other movie released over summer; much has been made over not only the film’s themes of pagan spirituality and human encroachment on nature, but it’s feminist narrative. I certainly won’t be the first one to compare the lead female’s betrayal and loss at the hand of someone she loves as a metaphorical rape. The act does not take away her agency, however, and she remains a compelling and active character throughout the film. She overcomes being victimized by evil by, ironically enough, dominating evil. I like the idea that a movie centering around a female character with dubious ethics is being treated so seriously, and I like the idea that it’s making so much money at the box office. There should be more movies with a character like Maleficent.
And make no mistake, Maleficent is a very good character. Not unlike Fassbender’s magnetic anti-villain, she is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, but a three-dimensional sorceress who grows and changes throughout the film. It doesn’t hurt either, that Jolie gives her best performance in years, both as a screaming ball of magic rage, and as a reflective, tortured woman.
It is unfortunate then, that the rest of the movie fails to do either of them justice. As Stephan, the normally talented Sharlto Copley tries to mangle his South African accent into something resembling a Scottish one. Elle fanning is not a bad actress either, but her Princess Aurora is about as vapid and empty as, well, her Disney counterpart. The rest of the film is split between two settings; the Moors and the Kingdom; each lacking in visual character besides a few cartoonish individuals.
Rounding out the small cast of characters are the three multicolored fairies with the faces of their respective actors (most notably Professor Umbridge herself, Imelda Staunton) pasted uncannily onto their heads. They mostly engage in slapstick and don’t do anything of real consequence. The lone bright spot in this sordid supporting cast is Sam Riley as Maleficent’s shapeshifting crow, Diaval. With Jolie, he shares a friendly and fun chemistry; like an intern with a boss, or the nice guy who got friend zoned by his isolated crush.
Overall, Maleficent is full of bright ideas without much creativity in the execution. There are better things to watch and spend money on, for the most part. For what its worth though, the film is, unquestionably a step in the right direction, both in this mostly useless “Disney reboot” genre, and for female-driven summer tentpoles in general.