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Magnificent Maleficent & Memories from Childhood

Note: This is not a review of Maleficent, rather a note on my feelings concerning this film. Please read it expecting a personal view, rather than a general analysis of the movie (oh, and watch out for spoilers)!

When I was very young, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was one of my favorite animated films; I haven’t watched it in years, perhaps even a decade, but while I watched Maleficent, I felt those old feelings emerging out of a haze, dulled by time; I could remember my fear when Maleficent was about to make her grand appearance at the birth ceremony of Aurora. I could remember my anticipation to hear her next words. It was quite funny when I realized this line, ‘Royalty, nobility, the gentry and… How quaint! Even the rabble’ was embedded in my memory, although being so young, I had no idea what gentry meant, let alone any of the other words. I just remembered the mocking voice Maleficent spoke in.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Maleficent pleasantly surprised me. I was expecting a film more along the lines of Alice in Wonderland and Oz, decked out in overly-done CGI, forgetting allegiances to old scripts and characters. But Maleficent was not one of those; in fact, Jolie seemed to have Maleficent down pat, even adding her own extempore bits, which only enhanced her role in a magnificent manner. Maleficent was, after all, a girl, who had had her heart broken and faced betrayal through utmost cruelty. Imagine having wings and then having them torn from you- it’s hard to imagine at that but well, what a nice, feeling touch to the story.

Maleficent with wings
A winged representation of Maleficent

Maleficent was a powerful fairy- one who was relied upon for the protection of the forest, home to many magical creatures. Perhaps taking an environmentalists’ stand doesn’t go awry in this day and age- you begin to root for Maleficent, despite her stubbornness and her wish to bring death to a girl who has done nothing to deserve it. And you begin to hate Stefan, you really, really do. The additional treasure was the little 4-year old Aurora, played by Jolie’s own daughter Vivienne. Despite taking a turn for evil, Maleficent was unable to resist ‘little beastie’, the little Aurora for whom she developed actual feelings and for whom she almost sacrificed her life. I have to admit, watching Jolie with baby Aurora were some of the funniest moments in the entire movie.

Disney's MALEFICENT  L to R: Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Young Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt)  Ph: Frank Connor  ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
L to R: Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Young Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) Ph: Frank Connor ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The best parts however, are when vestiges of the original Sleeping Beauty come back to life; the remnants of a time long past, where fairies, happily ever afters and magical goodness was the order of the day for young children. It is possible that this perspective is merely the result of my affiliation to the late eighties and early nineties. I can see Maleficent received some very nasty reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. In any case, I’m not daunted by movie reviews in general, and Jolie’s performance still managed a proud walk-away, getting all the credit for making Maleficent at least watchable for those who were expecting more deviation from the original fairytale environment.

I, for one, am glad Maleficent was saved from becoming a twisted, myopic CGI disaster. Instead, it brought the long faded Maleficent to life; the iconic crown and the darkened silhouette lived once again as they graced cinema screens. The questionable futility of the young Prince, his diminished role, the decision of Aurora to take her life in her own hands and the pitiful attempts by the three good fairies to raise Aurora- all mark the ways in which this beautiful classic was changed in order to adapt to a more empowered audience. Yet, Maleficent herself did not change, her character was deepened, with a sad origin story, but the Maleficent moments remained original.

Thank you, Angelina Jolie, for helping my childhood resurface for the few precious hours I watched Maleficent.

Bonus: Watch the unforgettable ‘Awkward Situation’ scene from Maleficent below.





Save Animation!

Animation, 2D and 3D, works best when it has a distinct visual feel to it, a recognizable palette that forever after becomes synonymous with its name and characters, an array of shapes and motifs that help make it distinguishable from other features. Disney’s 1997 ‘Hercules’, for instance, had ancient Greece etched even into the chins and shins of the characters. In that remarkable work of art, if a pot broke, the puff of dust would be a series of lines right out of a Grecian Urn.

Disney's 'Hercules' (1997)

‘Pocahontas’ also had a very marked sensation of its own. Think ‘Pocahontas’, think bold symmetry and rich texture, think elemental forms and dramatic colours lifted from totemic masks. Inspired by a beautiful culture that strikes me as shy and strongly individualistic at the same time, its straight, heavy oaks and thick beams of sunlight provide a stunning backdrop to the story. These are animated films that my memory stored more in terms of the strong visual impression that they left than anything else. This is not to say that the plot or characterization were weak, it’s just that the first jolt of remembrance usually brings back the most basic, overall feel or flavor of anything. The details unfold only subsequently.

Concept Art from Disney's 'Pocahontas'

Where most animated features of today fail is this domain. They give you fast-paced action, smart-talking characters voiced (and completely possessed!) by celebrities, one-liners, fancy slow-motion sequences, sultry acoustic songs playing where, in the Disney tradition, a whole musical would have taken place, CGI gloss and crispness, a gazillion references to pop-culture, mini-parodies, mini-commercials…almost everything under the sun except for a good ol’ dose of defining, hard-to-forget visual imagery. Take ‘Shrek’, take ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’, even ‘Up’ to some extent. Entertaining. Not exactly memorable. You forget them like that Coke you just had.

And no, their being 3D has nothing to do with it. Hardcore animators like Glen Keane prove that; Disney’s forthcoming ‘Tangled’ is a 3D animation but as grounded in fine art as the 2D films from Disney’s golden age. Its entire feel is determined by Fragonard’s painting ‘the Swing’, a Rococo landmark, fresh and pretty like bright cream squiggles on a sunset-pink cake. From what I’ve seen of ‘Tangled’ stills so far, it’s apparent that this inspiration is never lost. There’s something of ‘the Swing’ in every shot. And, thankfully, the animators have not felt it incumbent on them to interpret 3D as realistic. There is a degree of stylization that has been missing for far too long from the screen!

'The Swing' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. 1767

Production still from Disney's forthcoming 3D feature 'Tangled'

In order to set a tone to a story and bring about any kind of coherence, you need to draw your colours, costumes, makeup, props and sets from the same well. If your story is set in Arab, your characters and architecture, even your skies and trees and flowers and bees need to assert that. If it is China, your tableau needs to have negative spaces as pregnant with force and mystery as those in the most familiar of Chinese watercolour landscapes (makers of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mulan’, kudos!). If your tale has its origins in Celtic lore, you need to get that across unrestrainedly to your audience. You need to not just talk about the designs from a Celtic manuscript, you need to mould the stage and the actors in their shape (hail ‘The Secret of Kells’ for doing precisely this).

Animated films, like their live-action counterparts, need to really be set aside from each other in a world that is growing irritatingly reliant on second-hand storytelling and disturbing computer-generated realism at the expense of artistic achievement.