MovieBob - Intermission
I May Have Been Wrong About Maleficent

Bob Chipman | 13 Jun 2014 12:00
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Intermission: Maleficent

I took another look at Disney's revisionist take on Maleficent.

Warning: The following contains significant spoilers for Maleficent.

So. MALEFICENT. is a pretty big hit. Huge, in fact, especially considering that it's a really dark, extremely unusual revisionist fairytale and the "ceiling" Hollywood keeps telling me comes affixed to movies made for, about or primarily starring women. Especially women approaching middle age with a bunch of kids. Funny how that works out.

I found, and still find, the film to be a mixed bag; but my review came down mostly on the positive side overall: I still maintain that its a little draggy in the second act and that the central "redemption" arc isn't quite as functional as it needs to be, but also that it opens and closes strong and Angelina's star turn picks up the slack. And yet, since my original review was finished and sent off to my editors I've been plagued by a nagging sense that maybe I hadn't given the film its due.

For starters, despite not particularly falling under its spell, I haven't been able to get it out of my head since first seeing it. That's not exactly surprising, since part of what stuck out about it from the beginning was how strange it was in execution: A Disney live-action pseudo-remake premised on the idea that the original classic had done violence to the "true" story as presented here? That posited a famous villainess was actually a wronged and righteous heroine? Tinged with broad-strokes references to sexual-assault survival, witch-persecution and matriarchal paganism vs male-centric European feudalism? Where did this come from?

But there are plenty of "bad" movies that can linger in the brain: Consider The Dark Knight Rises, a narrative disaster partially because its jam-packed with sloppy, hamfisted socio-political meandering; or more recently Man of Steel, which abandoned all sense of character and logic for an exhausting slugfest so tonally-inappropriate it triggered a media-wide debate on the proper care and tending of iconic modern myth. The bigger "yeah but" tugging on my ear over Maleficent was that I hadn't A.) acknowledged sufficiently that I am probably not the film's target audience, nor B.) made enough effort to consider what said audience might see that I didn't.

To be clear: To the extent that film criticism is a "discipline" at all, that discipline is being able to report on a work apart from the majority of one's own biases. Obviously, "pure" objectivity is impossible, but there are pretty clear degrees involved: I myself am fairly incapable of not enjoying a movie about robot dinosaurs just on principle, but when Transformers 4 comes out it's my job to tell you whether the parts I won't be watching on an endless Blu-ray loop are any good.

But a critic is human, and no one human can live a life that encompasses the entirety of the human experience. Well, maybe Werner Herzog has. And it's inevitable that even the very best critic (read: not me) may simply "miss" something that connects on a powerful level with others in the audience. And since the soul of narrative art is its connection with those experiencing it, at the end of the day there will be films whose visceral impact on an audience is worth considering in at least equal weight to its quantifiable beat-by-beat smoothness.

A good example would be Friday lambasted by mainstream critics upon release in 1995 but today remembered as one of the classic comedies of the 90s. It's easy to see where critics took issue: The structure is episodic, the characters thinly-sketched, Ice Cube is a limited actor and the overall effect more prolonged-sitcom than feature film. But the film connected with a large audience of (mostly) young black Americans by simple virtue of giving them something they seldom saw on screens: Themselves, and the day to day reality of inner-city American life presented with humor and even sentiment. Does that make Friday "good?" Well, I don't know - but it makes enough people say that its good for the prospect to be worth considering.

In any case, I made it a point to see Maleficent again on its actual opening day, a mid-afternoon show to guarantee an audience of (mostly) moms and kids. I wanted to see it again, but I also wanted to see how it "played" to this sort of crowd - my impression from the original viewing was that the film was making a very specific play for the sensibilities of a contemporary female audience, and regardless of how successful I thought the result was I wanted to see what that audience thought of it.

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