“That’s it. Game over man. Game over…”
…although it’s not quite “game over” yet for Andrew Brooker who continues his challenge to watch 365 films in 365 days.
“That’s it. Game over man. Game over…”
…although it’s not quite “game over” yet for Andrew Brooker who continues his challenge to watch 365 films in 365 days.
Returning for his first appearance since the end of year awards episode is James Diamond, ready to demolish you with his reviews of Whiplash and all things Luc Besson. Joining James is horror-fanatic and best mates with ‘Scream Queen’ Jessica Cameron; it’s Mike Shawcross finally making his long overdue debut with American Sniper, Testament of Youth and 80’s b-movie creature feature Alligator in his sights.
Among a hefty discussion on the Academy Awards and Razzie nominations, Owen explains why not even Steven Soderbergh puts giant space baby in the corner* with his cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whilst Steve struggles to get his head around the popularity of Disney’s mammoth hit, Frozen. Let it go, Steve! Let it goooo…
Join us next week for reviews of Mortdecai, Ex Machina and Kingsman!
*credit to @naanbab for the (quite frankly amazing) pun
Fun, funny, and quietly heartbreaking, Big Hero 6 overcomes what minor flaws it has through some of the strongest character work I have seen in an animated movie in years.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
As a kid who grew up during the Disney Renaissance, was too young to understand the significance of it, but was plied with their Golden Age output on various VHS tapes, few things make me happier than seeing Walt Disney Animation Studios once again return to a position where everything they put out is Must-See-Viewing. What groundwork Bolt managed to lay has proved more than stable as the studio have just been knocking it out of the park consistently for the last five films – The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie The Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen – with commercial success following them (almost) every step of the way.
Big Hero 6 continues that trend, completely cementing for those that don’t already know that Disney is very much back, which I imagine comes as a surprise for many people. After all, it appears to be a superhero film – many snobbier members of the critical spectrum being sick to death of them, by this point – based on a Marvel Comics series – themselves at risk of oversaturation due to that aforementioned comics boom. Expecting something transcendental from a superhero film, and especially what appears to be a B-grade Disney film, plays like wishful thinking at this point – I enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I’m not going to kid myself into believing that they’re not formula-driven popcorn flicks.
The real masterstroke of Big Hero 6, though, is that the superhero stuff actually makes up comparatively little of the film yet is still a vital part of it. See, the film follows Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a brilliant but directionless 14 year-old who finally seems to have found a purpose in his life – joining his similarly brilliant older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) at San Fransokyo’s finest robotics university – when tragedy strikes and Hiro once again has to deal with loss. Wallowing in his depression, Hiro accidentally activates Tadashi’s latest invention, Baymax (Scott Adsit), a soft, gentle “personal health care companion” who takes it upon itself to help Hiro deal with his depression – in this case throwing themselves into solving the mystery of the tragedy in question, which may not have been as random as it first seemed.
Therefore, the core of Big Hero 6 is not whizz bang superheroics. It is instead this central relationship between Hiro and Baymax as the latter tries to help the former overcome depression and grief without ever completely understanding the concepts it’s having to grapple with. That manifests itself via superheroics, but the film makes it clear that this is Hiro’s way of dealing with that loss, choosing to fixate on something to get his mind off the giant hole that has appeared in his life. Crucially, this is not the solution to his problems, it’s just the method, and the film never purports to claim that Hiro has or ever truly will overcome that loss. It offers no concrete answers, although Hiro does end the film happily, and its refusal to do so is what makes that thematic centre work – there’s a level of trusting maturity there that more animated films should have.
Helping that thematic centre is the fact that Hiro and Baymax are wonderful, incredibly lovable characters. Baymax, obviously, is the standout of the whole film, an absolutely adorable AI whose pacifist and childlike nature resonated totally with me. It is a creation of pure kind-hearted good and its little pre-programmed procedures and affectations manage to bring it close enough to humanity to make its more robotic moments that much more surprising and, occasionally, heartbreaking. Hiro is also likeable from the word “go”, his archetype forming the base of his character but not forming his entire character which enables him to feel unique and three-dimensional even from the opening few minutes.
Those qualities are enhanced too by their respective voice actors. Ryan Potter, previous of live-action Nickelodeon series Supah Ninjas, proves himself surprisingly adept at voice acting. A lot of the film is carried on Hiro’s shoulders, as well as that aforementioned weighty central theme, but he is more than up to the task, never over or under-playing any of his lines and excellently communicating the heartbreak, occasional anger and eventual somewhat recovery in a natural and convincing way. As for Scott Adsit… I really don’t know what to say, he is Baymax. From the second that Baymax communicates, Scott Adsit is it. His voice is that kind of genius immediate “no, this is perfect” casting that Disney have just been on a roll with recently – John C. Reilly as Ralph, Kristen Bell as Anna, Kristen Schaal as Mabel – and it fits Baymax so perfectly that he makes anything the character says a million times better than it already sounded on paper.
You may have noticed that I have yet to talk about the rest of the members of the Big Hero 6. Well, there’s a reason for that. See, this is Hiro’s movie. It’s about his grief and his fight with depression. Opening up to his friends – who for the record are GoGo Tamada (Jamie Chung), Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and Freddie (T. J. Miller) – at all, let alone asking them for help, is a major step for him and so, naturally, it takes about an hour for that to happen. As such, these guys and gals don’t get much of a focus in this movie and end up, like most of the superhero stuff which is the way that Hiro seeks closure in an attempt to move on, only coming into play in the final 40 minutes.
Not that this is a problem, mind you, as they all, even with their limited screen time – and the relegation of their backstories to promotional material, again not a problem – feel… well, real. They really do. Even with a comparatively tiny glimpse into their lives and personalities, they already feel like fully-formed, fully-defined, characters who exist and I can see existing outside of the confines of this film. GoGo, in particular, is given little material in this film yet I already adore her, thanks to what little we do find out – “Woman up!” is a phrase that fills me with indescribable joy, you have no idea – her character animations, and her voice actresses’ performance.
I get the impression that Disney wants this to be the start of some new franchise and that this will be something addressed in future media, but I don’t want a franchise in the traditional sense. I don’t want the big budget action-packed sequel, I don’t want a traditional television series, and I don’t want any of the superhero stuff. I just want more of Hiro, GoGo, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Freddie – with the occasional intrusion by Hiro’s wonderful Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph, having a ball) – hanging out together being them. The downtime, the non-action, non-dramatic stuff that conventional wisdom says is too boring to depict – with conflict and drama being the essence of narrative – because the little glimpses I got were so wonderful and tantalising that I just want more of that. I want more time with these characters…
…and also San Fransokyo. Seriously, the city of San Fransokyo is absolutely beautiful, a bustling metropolis with little details in architecture, signage, transport and just general design to make it feel like a genuine place that I would like to move to immediately. The camerawork also helps by borrowing that How To Train Your Dragon technique of bobbing, weaving and zooming like a live-action camera, adding a heft and dynamism to proceedings. Ditto the character animations which, whilst the designs are very much that Tangled-style of 3D Disney, are smoother and weightier than those in Frozen. In fact, that’s a perfect comparison: if the world of Frozen feels very much like a constructed movie set, with an artificial and loosely connected world and doll-like character designs and animations, then the world of Big Hero 6 feels like a real world that I can go to and live in.
There are flaws with Big Hero 6 – I wish that they didn’t play the Fall Out Boy song during the Montage montage, I wish the film had enough faith in its loss theme to not reverse the traditional Disney Death near the ending, that very last (non-post-credits) scene does not need to be there at all, and it telegraphs said tragedy way too obviously – but they really are just minor nitpicks for me. Big Hero 6 gets its core, both thematically and emotionally, spot-on, crafts a group of outstanding characters I just want to spend more time with, and a world I am genuinely sad about not really existing. From there, everything else slides into place – the humour, the fun, the excitement, what few action sequences there actually are – and what little it does wrong is rendered inconsequential in my mind.
As soon as I left the screen for Big Hero 6, I was left with two burning desires: to see it again, and to get down on my knees to Walt Disney Animation Studios and beg for them to make more shorts of just the core group of friends hanging out together. I adored it. Do not miss this one.
Big Hero 6 is due out in UK cinemas on January 30th.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $175 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%
In 2012, Pixar made major waves by releasing Brave, their first animated feature in the 26 years that they had existed (17 since they started releasing feature films) to feature a lead female protagonist. Conversation about the film primarily revolved around this aspect and the company was roundly praised and criticised for the execution of said creative choice. In late 2013, Disney released Frozen and one couldn’t move in 2014 without being drowned in think-pieces about whether the film was feminist or not. 2014 has also been the year in which the lack of female characters in films, long since held onto by movie executives who believe that female leads can’t carry non-romance movies – despite these past several years offering a laundry list to the contrary, and women now making up the majority of cinemagoers – has been roundly called out and questioned at large.
You can extend those questions of representation to the animated realm, too. For example, Pop Quiz: name me five non-sequel Western animated films released in cinemas in the past 10 years that feature a lead female protagonist… who is not, or does not become, a princess. Not a secondary lead character – so throw away Wreck-It Ralph – not a love interest, the lead character. Off the top of my head, I can name Persepolis (which is cheating, seeing as it is based on a true story), Coraline, The Croods, this week’s film Monsters vs. Aliens… No, that’s about all I can name.
The official list, which I have discovered through Wikipedia so apologies if some of these are wrong, consists of those films, Hoodwinked! (barely qualifies, it’s an ensemble piece by nature), Battle For Terra, Happily N’Ever After (again, barely), The Snow Queen, Anina, Epic and Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. That’s 11. 11 in 10 years. You can also throw the Tinkerbell series in that pile too – alongside the instalments of series like Barbie, Winx Club etc. that actually get a cinema release and fit the criteria – but it doesn’t change the fact that animation has a major female representation problem. Pixar’s Brave provoked some heated conversation for not adding to that pile – something they will attempt to rectify possibly with next year’s Inside Out – and, although I enjoyed Brave, it’s an understandable thing to rake them over the coals for.
Especially since DreamWorks Animation will have already fulfilled this criteria six years before Inside Out attempts to.
Despite appearances, Monsters vs. Aliens is very resolutely Susan’s story. There are stretches of the film where we hand proceedings over to the monsters or The President Of The United States, but those are basically just borrowing the film from Susan for a short while. At its core, at its centre, Monsters vs. Aliens is a film about a woman who learns to take control of her life and stop taking men’s sh*t. Susan is absolutely the main character, Susan is the character whose arc is the most fleshed out, Susan is the character who gets the lion’s share of the film’s awesome moments (as well as the best of them), and Susan is the emotional centre of the film.
Susan is Monsters vs. Aliens and her tale of female empowerment is why I spent so, so, so much of this film eating out of the palm of its hand. Many stories of female empowerment that I have come across recently – best epitomised by the latest Tomb Raider, which is a videogame but is too relevant to this topic to not address – mistake actual lead female growth for “Let’s constantly put her down and beat her up until she finally turns around and fights back.” They don’t let them grow emotionally, they don’t really let them choose to become powerful. They’re forced into violence, forced into fighting back and they don’t really grow as a person besides a proclivity for violence. There are ways to do this right, don’t get me wrong, but too many times I’ve seen media essentially put their lead female character through a Trauma Conga Line and have them come out of the other side broken but not stronger.
For an example of how to do this right, Monsters vs. Aliens spends much of its first half having bad things happen to Susan. Her fiancée relocates their honeymoon to Fresno instead of Paris in order to try and further his career, she gets hit by a meteor and grows nearly 50 feet tall, she is captured by the military and forcibly locked away in prison, denied the chance to see any of the people she loves ever again, and is renamed “Ginormica” by the government. She takes all of this how pretty much anybody would and retreats into despair, albeit trying to make the best of her situation by making friends with her fellow monsters. When told that she would gain her freedom if she helps take down a giant alien robot, she runs away, not wanting to be put into that situation.
But, and this is the crucial bit, she then stops mid-escape on the Golden Gate bridge to help those people who she has inadvertently put in danger. She risks her own life to help others, even though she has no reason to believe that she would make it out of the encounter alive. Her growth is not motivated by her own survival instinct, it’s motivated by her naturally-being-a-good-person-ness being enhanced by her powers. Susan is not a tormented dog turning around and biting back after being provoked enough because she has no other choice, she is somebody who actively chooses. She chooses her destiny, she chooses her strength, she chooses to embrace her new role.
After the robot battle, Susan is on Cloud Nine. She’s discovered a strength and a near-independence she didn’t know came with her personality, and she is proud of that fact! And that pride ends up becoming a defining feature of her character. Derek dumps her because Derek is a selfish dick, but he doesn’t take her pride with him. If anything, he re-enforces her independence. Naturally, she’s heartbroken for a short while, but the experience reminds her of how much more she’s accomplished by herself without holding the hand of Derek and that re-asserts her confidence. When she’s captured by Gallaxhar, she doesn’t even pretend to play the scared damsel, she’s immediately breaking out and trying to kick ass. When she’s de-powered, her first instinct is still to try and beat the crap out of Gallaxhar. When she’s home free but her friends are trapped, she goes back and sacrifices her prior life to save them.
And she makes all of these choices herself. Her agency becomes the drive for the film. Whenever somebody else tries to snatch her agency away from her, she takes it, or tries to take it, right back. Derek dumps her and breaks her heart; she seizes the wake-up call and announces that she will go on without him, no problem. Gallaxhar kidnaps her; she immediately breaks free and rampages across the ship in an attempt to beat him down in response. Gallaxhar takes her powers; her first instinct is still to try and take him down. About to be swarmed by clones? Susan immediately grabs a blaster and starts fending for herself. Her friends are set to die? Not whilst there’s still breath in Susan’s body!
She’s strong of mind, strong of personality. Her ability to kick copious amounts of ass is just another side to her – it’s not the only side to her and it’s not the only way she asserts her independence as a woman. She is – and I know that people absolutely detest this phrase but I can’t think of a better time to deploy it than now – a Strong Female Character. Way stronger than anything that DreamWorks had concocted up to this point – way more so than the supposedly progressive Shrek series and waaaaaaaaay more so than the supposedly-openly-feminist Shrek The Third. In fact, she reminds me at points – not always, their characterisations are rather different after all – of Korra from The Legend Of Korra, especially during her rampage through Gallaxhar’s spaceship which gave me flashbacks to the Korra Book 3 finale – where her kicking ass is not the empowering moment, because she doesn’t, but the fact that she is standing up and actively metaphorically yelling ‘no more!’ at her male oppressor.
This all being said, one could read the scene in which Susan fully rejects her original name and embraces Ginormica instead as yet another example of strong women being equated to masculinity – having to sacrifice their femininity to be happy or strong. However, I think it’s hard to read it fully like that. For one, Susan is rejecting the negative aspects of her old self – her passivity, her dependence on her man, the side of her that smiles and accepts bad things happening to her instead of fighting back – not her entire self. She’s embracing the side she didn’t realise she had until she become Ginormica, so she’s associating that new identity, which combines the best aspects of her old self – compassion, strong loyal bonds – with her newly discovered independence and personal strength; with her new outlook on life.
For two, Ginormica still has a distinctly feminine edge to it, primarily coming from the “a” affixed to the end of the name. It may have been assigned to her by somebody else – formally by General W. R. Monger, more than likely decided by a room full of men – but she has claimed the name back for herself. What started as an unwanted designation turns into a name that she is proud to sport, one that denotes her strength and her femininity. And for three, Susan doesn’t do anything, in this scene or in the remainder of the film’s runtime, that she hasn’t already proven herself capable of doing. She’s not suddenly becoming more masculine, she’s just owning up to the identity that she has now created.
Plus, this scene is just absolutely f*cking amazing and I will hear absolutely no ill will spoken against it.
Yet, I saw pretty much zilch comments about this aspect of the film during my research for this entry. Variety’s review – and I sh*t you not, here, go and follow the link to see for yourself – spends its paragraph on her talking about her in purely visual terms, as a thing to be attracted to and whose looks are the sole thing worth talking about. Empire managed to get a brief segment in about it, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek notes that the film’s very-unsubtle delivery of that message undermines and grates, but that’s about it. Professional reviewers instead judged it by the usual things they judge animated films by – pretty colours, pop culture jokes, level of heart, nowhere near as good as Pixar – and I count 2 think-pieces at the time on its feminism.
The point I’m trying to make is that there was no conversation. Brave sparked a conversation. Monsters vs. Aliens did not. Pixar sparked a conversation. Disney are deemed worthy of a conversation. DreamWorks were deemed unworthy of that conversation. Now, why do you think that is? After all, as I’ve pointed out time and again throughout this series, DreamWorks are a company with a complicated and storied history with characters of the female gender – next week I’m going to have to talk about Astrid, for example, and I am bracing myself accordingly – shouldn’t we be scrutinising their works the same way we scrutinise Disney or Pixar?
Now, of course, one can explain these away by either noting that a lot has changed in the last five years – hence why I noted the uptick in demands for representation this past year – and that Disney has a longer history than DreamWorks so there’s more to cull from. That first one is sort of understandable, I guess, but the second is what I call shenanigans on. After all, Pixar have only been releasing animated features for 3 years longer than DreamWorks have, and they’ve released less films overall than DreamWorks have. So why do Pixar get preferential treatment?
It probably comes down to that rep that DreamWorks have accumulated. I am not going to go over this in full again, as I have covered it multiple times in this series – hell, that rep is what basically helped kick-start this series in the first place – and it helps none of us if I spend forever repeating myself, but DreamWorks are seen as a commercial outhouse. A factory, if you will, one that pumps out an endless stream of films – at least half of which are sequels – with no semblance of quality control in the hopes that something strikes financial, and maybe also critical if that’s possible, gold. And whilst 2014 has shown that to be completely untrue – three home runs creatively, even if the How To Train Your Dragon series does nothing for me – that’s the rep they’ve acquired and it’s not one that they’re shaking any time soon.
Pixar releases, though, and official Disney releases are seen as events. Because they limit themselves to one film a year, even taking a year off in some cases, each release and each entry into their canon is seen as something special, something to take notice of. It’s why when they release a Cars 2 or a Home On The Range/Chicken Little, everybody is harder on them – those are seen as sullying marks on a track record that has shown it can do better. Yet if DreamWorks releases a sub-par Shrek, everybody shrugs their shoulders and collectively goes, “Well what did you expect?” before proceeding on with their lives. It’s why negative Cars 2 reviews compare it to Pixar’s prior classics, whilst negative Penguins Of Madagascar reviews also compare it to Pixar’s prior classics despite DreamWorks having a rapidly-growing list of quality films of their own to compare themselves to.
Look, I get it, Pixar are The Gold Standard for animation – hopefully still are, I pray to various deities that 2015 is the year in which everybody pulls their fingers out of their arses and gets back to a level somewhere close to where they were operating on up to and including Toy Story 3 – but they should not be the be all end all of conversation in the medium. DreamWorks Animation are one of the biggest and most successful animation companies in the Western world for a reason, and their creative decisions should be getting as much scrutiny as their competitors. You know how many think-pieces I’ve seen on How To Train Your Dragon 2’s gender roles in the past six months? Three. That Tasha Robinson piece from earlier that used the film as a jumping-off point to look at the industry at large, a short blog entry by Margot Magowan, and a list piece by Gina Luttrell.
Next year, both Pixar and DreamWorks are releasing films with female protagonists. Pixar are releasing Inside Out, a film about the various emotions inside a 10 year-old girl’s mind, DreamWorks are releasing Home, a film about a black teenage girl who teams up with a not-particularly smart alien to thwart a double invasion of Earth. I guarantee you that Inside Out will be talked about and scrutinised more for its depiction of the female gender than Home ever will be. I mean, I’m also pretty sure that Inside Out will be a better film than Home as well, but that’s not the point.
The point is that we can’t and shouldn’t pick and choose which animated films and which animation studios are worth hard analysis. This is a medium that deserves to be taken seriously – as I have repeatedly made clear in articles on this site – and that’s not going to happen until we look at everything with the same staunchly critical and analytical eye that we do for Pixar and Disney. Do you think I wrote 3,108 words on Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas because I had nothing better to do with my time? I mean, I don’t, but the point is that Sinbad had that much going on in it that I didn’t need to work especially hard to hit my self-assigned word count. Ditto films like The Nut Job, or Escape From Planet Earth, or the Tinker Bell series. They’re not high art, but they are still worthy and capable of supporting in-depth discussion.
And so does Monsters vs. Aliens, which I believe is a very feminist film. It’s not a perfect feminist film – Susan is still the only girl, girl-ish screams are the focal point for a very long gag, “You got beat by a girl” is deployed as an insult form but at least in a dramatic way that affects character work this time – but I believe that it is still a loud, proud and powerfully feminist film about female self-empowerment. I may be wrong. Hell, I want to be wrong; I want a hundred feminist critics – preferably women, who have far more of a say in this discussion than I do – to come charging down the hill and take up both sides of the argument, either agreeing with my assessment or disagreeing and showing me ten to fifteen reasons why.
I want to see lengthy conversations about the film’s messy structure, about its uninteresting villain, about why the humour does or does not work, about whether the art style works or just ends up freaking the writer out for the length of the film, about how badly the unspoken “All Animated Movies Must Be 90 Minutes Under Pain Of Death” rule hobbles the film from excellency. All things I would have talked about at length had I the time – although, for the record: awkwardly paced first half but the film soars from San Francisco onwards, script doesn’t give him anything to do, too low-brow for the most part and the film’s very dramatic undercurrent means that the attempts at parody undercut proceedings, takes a while to get used to but at least makes Susan and the monsters look great, and this needed to be 2 hours or even a full season of TV – and all things I could have easily based at least half an article of this length on individually.
Point is, I want a conversation to start. Animation needs a conversation if it’s going to better itself and be fully respected, and that conversation needs to cover everyone – not just critical golden boy Pixar and good old Disney. DreamWorks Animation should be allowed in on that conversation, regardless of its past or its very commercial and prolific nature. I am one of about three people talking about feminism and non-Shrek DreamWorks films. This should not be the case. So, start conversing.
Monsters vs. Aliens continued DreamWorks Animation’s re-ascension to quality filmmaking in the eyes of critics, although the film’s major underperformance overseas prevented it from being the financial smash that the studio would have liked. It wasn’t a failure, though, and so the company would close out the decade – Monsters vs. Aliens being their only release for 2009 – on a decent note with the company still looking strong. Their first film of the new decade, though, would take everybody by surprise and be seen as the company’s new Magnum Opus, as well as the start of a very successful new franchise.
Next week, we look at the first How To Train Your Dragon.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Maleficent is both far better than it sounds and nowhere near as good as it promises to be.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
That was from an article posted on The Hollywood Reporter back in October concerning reshoots for Maleficent. I’m really rather hoping that Disney didn’t pay too much for those reshoots because the first 30 minutes of Maleficent are really not good. When your film begins by featuring a child actress who is straining so very, very hard to act with every fibre of her being, whilst her character is being sickeningly nice and sweet as that “acting” is going on, first impressions are not going to be very favourable. Fortunately for all involved, Maleficent does get better. In fact, you can pretty much pinpoint the exact minute the film starts getting good, when it settles into its groove and starts doing the stuff it clearly wanted to do from the beginning.
Unfortunately, though, Maleficent has been cut down to within an inch of its life. Running at a svelte 96 minutes with credits, and with a really poor opening 30, this is a film that breathlessly sprints through everything it has to offer at 300MPH and only laying the barest groundwork necessary for its big emotional arc and switcheroo finale to work; instead relying on Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning to carry them through. It almost works. When the film settles into its groove, it’s a very good re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty and its emotional beats do land. Unfortunately, that groundwork is full of bags of potential that never get realised because of the poor opening and the extreme shortness of its runtime.
That opening, for those that are interested, concerns a child Maleficent who lives in the forest kingdom and is the kindest and nicest fairy who ever lived a life of being kind and nice. One day, she encounters a human child, Stefan, who snuck into the forest kingdom and the two become friends, apparently, and later lovers, apparently. The years go by, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) grow older and further apart, with Maleficent leading the defence force of the forest kingdom from a human army who wish to wipe them out because… humans are dicks? Anyways, the king, on his deathbed after a battle with Maleficent, puts out a hit on her and the opportunistic Stefan uses his old friendship with her as a way in. Unable to pull the trigger and straight kill her, Stefan instead steals her wings, takes the throne based on a lie and leaves Maleficent a woman scorned and determined for revenge.
Yes, that does sound like the film bending over backwards and then some in an attempt to make Maleficent a sympathetic protagonist. Stay with me, we’re almost at the part where it starts getting good. King Stefan and his wife eventually give birth to Aurora (who eventually grows up to be Elle Fanning) and Maleficent shows up and curses the child to fall into a deep sleep if she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel any time before the day after her sixteenth birthday, from which only a true love’s kiss can rouse her. Stefan panics, because both he and Maleficent don’t believe in such a thing and sends the girl away to a remote cottage near the forest kingdom to be raised by three fairies. Maleficent, however, follows, discovers where the baby is being kept and becomes sort of a far-distance trickster godmother to Aurora until, one day, their mutual curiosity leads to a face-to-face meeting and you can probably guess the rest.
Here’s the thing, that part of the film is great! I mean, I’m a sucker for this kind of plotline anyway (ones that focus on mother-daughter relationships just kind of get to me), but Maleficent still pulls it off with aplomb thanks mainly to Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning. Jolie looks like she’s been building to this role for her entire life and she mostly nails it. Not only does she look the part (seriously, the work made to get her to look like the title character is superb), she’s also mostly fantastic. She’s weakest in the beginning (what a surprise), but as soon as she appears at Aurora’s christening she is off to the races. When she needs to be the loud hammy villain, Jolie hits those notes excellently, equal parts dead straight and having the time of her life. When she needs to sell the growing affection she has for Aurora, she sells it totally, as note-perfect deadpan gives way to genuine warmth. The film puts the attempted curse revoking far too early in the narrative’s chronology for it to register as genuine, but Jolie still gives it her all, regardless. She’s a commanding screen presence, equally convincing when making humans tremble in fear as when she’s shrinking back into herself when surrounded by lethal iron. It’s that instance of dream casting where the performance ends up exactly as great as it sounded on paper; I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part in live-action now.
Jolie will get a lot of much deserved plaudits and praise thrown her way, but hopefully that won’t mean that Elle Fanning is left out in the cold, either. I mean, after all, it takes two to sell a maternal relationship and Fanning is more subdued than her co-star but no less great. See, Fanning has to be happy and cheerful practically all of the time, a saint in all but name, and that can often lead into precociously annoying (after all, it happened with child Maleficent at the beginning of the film). Fanning, however, finds that sweet-spot where she’s both believably nice and cheery and friendly, and not punch-ably-annoying. She’s endearing so, even though the film short-changes the whole relationship (we will get back to that, hang in there), it’s still easily understandable how Maleficent would start defrosting due to spending time with her. I really do wish that the film spent more time on this part, but Jolie and Fanning still force a section that would otherwise operate at half-strength (at best) come close to the level of most films that spend way longer on such character relationships.
Similarly recovering from a poor start is the character of King Stefan who spends the movie succumbing to his paranoia regarding Maleficent’s curse. We don’t check in with him too much, but we do so enough to both nail down both the tragic aspect of his villainy and how his paranoid delusions turn him into a horrible, selfish and often vile human being. He doesn’t just turn evil so that we can have our final setpiece, his slide into what he becomes remains rooted in character work set up beforehand which keeps it from feeling jarring (unlike certain other blockbusters that I don’t much care to mention). A nod of approval should also be thrown Sharlto Copley’s way, too. Unlike his villain turn in last year’s Elysium, he resists the urge to go full-ham and instead pitches his performance as more of a pathetic and weasely character who only got into his position through greed and whose paranoia seems to be just as much, if not more so, rooted in his own wellbeing than that of his daughter. At first I was disappointed (I actually really like Copley’s hammier turns), but the more I reflect the more I grow to like it. It’s understated, and I can dig that.
Oh, it would also be remiss of me to not mention the fairies that look after Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville). Well, I say “look after”. In Maleficent, they’re very self-absorbed and care more about the fact that they’re, direct quote, “wasting the best years of our lives” on their charge. They’re also sometimes comic relief, although that mainly comes from Maleficent messing with them than jokes about their negligence in raising Aurora (that, surprisingly, is a well they only go to once and it’s required to set up the beginning of her and Maleficent’s relationship). It’s a rather fun deconstruction, in all honesty, and it fits well with the mildly deconstructive nature of the rest of the film, too. Ditto the stuff with Prince Phillip which is short, and cribs from Frozen, but is still very much appreciated.
See, all of this stuff is good. Great, even! However, it’s also cut to within an inch of its life. There is the bare minimum of content to each of these themes and plots and scenarios which works fine for King Stefan (it checks in precisely enough times to get the message across), the fairies and Prince Phillip (whose ideas and themes benefit from the reduced screen-time as it keeps them from being beaten over the audience’s head), but is almost killer for Maleficent and Aurora. Again, it hits the bare minimum of points and scenes in order to make the emotional beats connect at least partially, and even then it’s mainly down to Jolie and Fanning to do most of that heavy lifting, but that’s it. It goes no further. For an example, it takes pretty much one scene after the two meet for Maleficent to defrost to Aurora when she’s brought to the forest kingdom. It’s that kind of speedy manoeuvring of plot pieces that makes what should be a huge, giant heartwarming ending, the kind that leaves a glow of pure joy emanating from my heart for hours on end, instead a mildly uplifting one. The power isn’t there because the time hasn’t been put in.
Instead, we spend the opening 30 minutes very, very, very awkwardly setting up Maleficent’s back-story. It’s got everything! Dreadful child actors, poor attempts at Lord Of The Rings-style fantasy battlefield action so that there’s something in the advertisements to hook the boys in with, montage after montage after montage, clunky foreshadowing, “a woman scorned” as the primary motive for the lead’s descent into darkness (although the film quickly distances itself from this after the 30 minute mark, so I’m not as bothered as I could have been), extremely clunky explanations of how [x iconic character] got [y iconic accessory] (Diaval was saved from hunters by Maleficent and is now her humble servant, if you were just dying to know)… They’re all present and they’re all correct and, dear Maker, they are so badly done and so at odds with the rest of the film. These go more for fantasy epic than the smaller scale relationship-focussed story the film pivots on after the first half-hour, and the switch between the two is equivalent to a really bad truck driver awkwardly attempting to shift gears. They’re that at odds with each other and in terms of both tone and quality.
And it sucks up so much precious time! Look, Maleficent never drags, that’s the beauty of its 96 minute length, but the film did not need to waste half-a-gorram-hour very awkwardly and painfully setting up Maleficent’s back-story, because it takes away from the central relationship that drives it! If Disney and the filmmakers wanted the film to be 96 minutes, they should have started the story at the point in which Maleficent crashes the coronation and left her back-story to be a mid-film reveal, summed up in a five minute montage. It would get the point across, we’d lose nothing because the film is that bad at the entire section as it is, and it would have left more room for development of the Maleficent/Aurora relationship. You could even catch viewers off-guard by slowly subverting the typical Maleficent and Stefan images before hitting the audience with the back-story to make the tragedy of it all sting that much more. But, no, instead it takes about 30 minutes for the film to get out of its rut and get to the bloody point, which is a third of the film wasted!
Look, Maleficent is a mess. I will not dispute that. The overly-streamlined runtime coupled with the drastically different opening third creates a film that seems to be either the product of a whole bunch of people trying to make separate films and only successfully getting on each other’s page for its final third (where it applies the Sleeping Beauty story to the universe we’ve spent the last hour in, and which is way better than that sounds), or the product of filmmakers who got bored a third of the way into their uninspired Lord of the Rings cribbing and, realising that you can’t just throw that kind of money away, decided to staple it onto the first third of a much better film, instead. You can practically see the seams at the exact minute that the film comes alive.
But when the film comes alive, it displays so much potential that it realises just enough of to be a satisfying film, but not enough to keep me from being disappointed. This should have been an excellent film; Maleficent is a whole bunch of scenes that are likely currently residing on the cutting room floor and a good editor who knows what to keep, what to toss and what to re-attach away from being a damn great film. The blueprint is there, the framework is there, say the word and it will go straight for the emotional jugular! But those opening 30 minutes are bad and they’ve stolen away the 30 minutes required to make Maleficent a great film instead of a maddeningly good one. Jolie is excellent, Fanning is nearly on that level, Copley is superb, the story and script are clearly wanting to go great places, but the sum is not greater than or equal to those parts, I’m afraid.
So, so maddeningly close.
I’ve always loved film soundtracks, but ever since I’ve been film blogging they have pretty much replaced radio and MTV in being my primary channel for discovering new music and previously undiscovered classics. So, just as l did last year, here is my ‘Cinematic Soundtrack of the Year’, starring my favourite musical moments from film in the last twelve months.
Cuddly Toy by Roachford – Alpha Papa
Unfairly overshadowed by another Oscar-winning, tightly shot close-up musical performance (more on that later), the sight of Steve Coogan lip-syncing to forgotten 80s ‘classic’ Cuddly Toy while driving to work in his sponsored car let me know that everything was going to be okay with the one film I was desperate not to fail this year. It stayed true to the spirit of the TV show (in fact it’s very reminiscent of Alan’s air bass guitar to Gary Numan’s ‘Music for Chameleons’ in series 2), while laying down a marker for how this very British sitcom was going to expand onto our cinema screens by spending 3 minutes on one joke, which would have been unthinkable in a 27-minute programme.
Silver Lady by David Soul – Filth
Filth’s soundtrack is one of my favourites of the year, featuring a great Clint Mansell score as well as a number of interesting covers and rediscovered classics. However, the pinanacle of the film’s marriage of bizarre imagery and 70s soul comes in a scene where David Soul arrives in a car, picking up Shauna Macdonald (playing the wife of James McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson). The ensuing car journey has Soul singing his own ‘Silver Lady’, complete with glamorous backing singers in the back seat. Utterly bizarre and hilarious.
I Follow Rivers (The Magician Remix) by Lykke Li – Blue is the Warmest Colour
This must have been a huge hit in France, not only featuring on the soundtrack to Rust and Bone (my film of 2012), but even more memorably in this year’s Palm d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour. In a picture notable for its lack of a conventional score, the party scene where Adele finds some much needed familiarity with her friends and family comes to life with this brilliant track.
Can’t Forget by Cliff Martinez (feat. Mac Quayle & Vithaya Pansringarm) – Only God Forgives
Like Nicholas Winding Refn’s last film Drive, Only God Forgives is scored superbly by Cliff Martinez. The highlight for me being the karaoke performance of a softly spoken, samurai sword-wielding police office played with an unearthly grace and calm by Vithaya Pansringarm. The scens of him singing his heart out to a room of impassive stony-faced colleagues was unnerving and almost Lynchian in its banal nightmarish qualities.
Space Oddity by David Bowie (and Kristen Wiig) – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Pipping the films use of the brilliant Arcade Fire track Wake Up is the moment where Kristen Wiig enters a bar in Greenland, dressed in winter clothing and with a guitar slung over her shoulder, and starts to sing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. A wondrous collision of incredible music and Ben Stiller finally seizing the day as my cinematic proxy made this one of my favourite moments in a cinema all year. Seriously, it was like porn to me.
Let’s Go Fly a Kite by Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, and Emma Thompson – Saving Mr Banks
Any film featuring the near-perfect songs from Mary Poppins was always going to end up on this list, but even I was surprised by how affected I was by this film’s exploration into the themes and motivations behind the creation of Disney’s finest film. The moment that PL Travers (Emma Thompson) and the song-writing Sherman Brothers (BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman) finally reach a moment of understanding and conciliation over the climactic Mary Poppins is a joyous scene.
Let It Go by Idina Menzel – Frozen
This Disney musical is huge return to form for the animation studio that has struggled in Pixar and Dreamwork’s shadow over the last decade. But while other studios stagnated this year, Disney produced their best film since the renaissance of the early nineties. Frozen, based on a classic Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale, looks absolutely fantastic and features songs comparable to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, but with a post-Wicked twist. Idina Menzel’s (who has history as a Disney princess from Enchanted) performance as Elsa at the mid-way point of the film is the perfect marriage of stunning animation and incredible vocals.
I Dreamed a Dream by Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
I simply couldn’t look beyond this as my choice for musical moment of the year. I’ve been a huge fan of the original musical ever since my wife persuaded me to grow up and forget my preconceptions about musical theatre, and it has been a long wait to see the musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel finally make it to the big screen. Luckily, the film didn’t disappoint (let’s just pretend Russell Crowe didn’t happen) and Tom Hooper’s film gained Oscar nominations and a place in my films of 2013 list.
The moment of the film that most sticks in the mind though is that incredible sequence where Anne Hathaway rescues one of theatre’s great songs from the hands of Susan Boyle. The close-up, the impassioned vocals, and the sobbing endeared Hathaway to a legion of new fans, and rightfully won her an Oscar.
These tracks, and more, are available on this collaborative Spotify playlist. We’d love you to add your favourite soundtrack music that we missed.
In this week’s episode the team are reviewing one of the most exciting films to come from the Disney animation studio in years (Frozen), Spike Lee’s return to some kind of form (the remake of Oldboy), and the archetypal Jason Statham film (Homefront).
This week also sees the return of Triple Bill, in which after a run of pretty mediocre remakes we count down our favourite remakes that are definitely worth a watch, and we also find time to discuss the British Independent Film Awards and Disney’s not very stealthy moves to resurrect the Indiana Jones franchise.
Join us next week for the last ‘normal’ podcast of the year, and our review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Samug.