Last summer, upon surviving The Lone Ranger, I felt I’d finally come to some sort of Zen-like epiphany about these giant Disney marketing events masquerading as “movies”: They aren’t really films at all; not in any classic sense of what cinema is, what it means.
My weary separate peace with these packaged, pre-sold, cross-promoted, brand-leveraged, multi-quadrant, ledger assets hinges on the acquiescence that it’s okay to give up and just accept them as some sort of “promotional entertainment.”
In the most darkly brilliant of marketing feedback loops, they are driven by and then exist solely to perpetuate brand identity: namely that “Disney Magic.” Which of course, in turn, strengthens the corporate bottom line across all fields of merchandizing, broadcasting, and theme parking.
Look here what I went and wrote last summer about The Lone Ranger:
They are large. They are aggressively marketed spectacle. They are amusement rides built around merchandizing shelves. They are corporate ambition wrapped in franchise dreams. But they’re not bad films, because they’re not really films.
In trying to sub-categorize these behemoths, I’m desperately hoping to work some sort of mid-life end-run around the creeping cynicism that has all but engulfed my enjoyment of just about any expensive studio action-adventure-fantasy “entertainment” that revolves around big-star stunt casting and an overdose of hollow CGI “dazzle.”
The other night I watched Waking Sleeping Beauty, a surprisingly warty insider look at the Disney animation Renaissance of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, directed and told by long-time Disney producer Don Hahn. The documentary is a study of the epic over-sized ego clashes (Roy Disney Jr, Michael Ovitz, Jeffery Katzenberg, and the film’s co-producer Peter Schneider) that actually helped fuel and drive Disney Animation’s now-legendary rebirth, resulting in the stunning run of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and of course The Lion King.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (the original 1959 animated feature was the last Disney cartoon based on a fairy tale until 1989’s Little Mermaid) posits that the subsequent “second decline” of Disney Animation after The Lion King (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan) was because any clash of titanic egos ends up scorching and crushing the landscape around them.
But in fact two important things happened in the midst of the Disney Renaissance that led to its slow, steady erosion and whose effects can be felt today: the arrival of computer graphics (and the rise and triumph of then Disney corporate cousin Pixar), and the post-Aladdin increased use of celebrity voices in animation (also heavily boosted by Pixar).
By the early ‘00s, Pixar was rolling (Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles) as Disney hand-drawn animation was dying (The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet), but out of it all emerged a completely new form of Disney Cineplex product: The star-studded, live-action commodity cartoon.
In 2003 the original Pirates of the Caribbean brought it all together: Take a known (preferably Disney-based) pop-culture product (here, an amusement park ride), enlist a charismatic oddball or outsider star (Johnny Depp), hire a genre director with a visual flair for live-action cartoons (Gore Verbinski), and wrap it all in the dazzling CGI spectacle. Stir, market, merchandise, then sit back and print money.
If there’s one thing Disney knows, it’s how to codify a formula and repeat it for maximum effect. So over this past decade there followed three more Pirates movies, Tim Burton and Depp’s Alice in Wonderland, Sam Raimi and James Franco’s The Great and Powerful Oz, and Verbinski and Depp’s Lone Ranger. (Not to mention Prince of Persia and John Carter.)
So while Waking Sleeping Beauty is a fascinating look at an important part of animation history, it’s just that: history. These days, as once-golden Pixar continues to stumble through the inevitable creative valley, post-Pirates Disney is not about Sleeping Beauty, it’s about Maleficent.
Itself once a Tim Burton project, Maleficent is penned by Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Mulan, and live-action Alice in Wonderland writer Linda Woolverton and helmed with dull visual competence by former effects and production designer and first-time director Robert Stromberg. Of course all of that behind-the-scenes “creative force” is secondary to Maleficent’s primary raison d’être and selling-point: Angelina Jolie as the eponymous “villainess.”
And, like Depp, Jolie also seems less and less interested in playing the movie-star and more interested in serious, artistically credible personal projects like her direction of 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey and this year’s upcoming Unbroken.
But when necessary, Jolie, once again like Depp, can still turn on the check-cashing, cache-preserving star power with dazzling effortlessness—her portrayal of Maleficent, a good fairy gone bad, is an actor’s light smorgasbord of wry wit, gleeful self-deprecation, and arch heartache. It’s all, like Depp’s blockbuster performances, neatly entertaining amid a lot of otherwise pointless clamor.
As for the rest of that pointless clamor, Maleficent is yet another revisionist fairytale that, like Wicked, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Disney/ABC’s own Once Upon a Time, purports to examine darker, more complex emotional and sociological themes.
At first glance, Maleficent, like Wicked, seems to be about how a trusting, free-spirited heroine turns “evil” (and, this being Disney, is later gloriously redeemed), but the script doesn’t have much interest in actually examining how good intentions and painful disappointments fester into villainous bitterness. They just do, alright?
For all Jolie’s skill at deftly turning tight emotional corners (all while sporting a horny dominatrix headdress and razor-sharp cheekbones that would send Benedict Cumberbatch scurrying for the whetstone), there’s only so much she can do with a character that—despite the title billing—is mostly on hand to orchestrate something something green magic CGI spectacle. Instead, Jolie, with a major costume-and-make-up assist, leverages her star image into a pleasingly stylish mix of old-Hollywood haughty Joan Crawford glamour and plucky post-feminist theory.
Rather than examine self-destructive Darth-Vader-like corruption, Maleficent focuses on how strong, independent women are betrayed and embittered by the deceptions of craven, cowardly men who must, out of fear of that feminine power, label their female opposites something rhyming with “witches.”
In this case, it’s Sharlto Copley’s man who would be king who quite literally clips Maleficent’s wings, but she’s redeemed from anything approaching actual villainy by her growing maternal love for Elle Fanning’s Aurora, the future Sleeping Beauty.
(After his 2009 breakout in District 9, Hollywood has never quite figured out what to do with the South African Copley—so once again here he snivels and schemes and chews up whatever CGI scenery Maleficent hasn’t turned to thorns.)
But as expected, all these female-empowerment themes are ultimately, like Jolie herself (who I suspect insisted on their inclusion), PR window dressing for the product—admirable as they may be, they amount to little more than the entertainment equivalent of British Petroleum sponsoring a nature preserve.
Jolie works hard (and impressively) to make Maleficent about something more with a performance that’s nicely nuanced in places–but it’s still chunked up by formulaic requirements and nonsensical narrative leaps. Anything approaching an idea is quickly starved out amid the numbing visual and emotional flatness of all that unrelentingly pretty CGI scenery (including chattering critters), Avatar-like flying scenes, LOTR-style battles and dragons, and the never-ending, insatiable need to service all four demographic quadrants (young, old, male, female) no matter how poorly it all hangs together.
(Things like Maleficent have me more convinced than ever that CGI, once the savior of fantasy films, is now slowly, steadily killing fantasy films.)
Born in the boardroom (“Angelina Jolie! As a Disney villainess! Boom, done! Lunch!”) and crafted by corporate committee, these films have all the right pieces, all the right players, and all the money in the world for dazzling spectacle, but they have absolutely no unifying sense of themselves.
And as with so many of its processed kin, days after seeing Maleficent, you won’t recall much beyond Jolie’s twinkling sneer under those amazing prosthetic cheekbones. To the extent you remember anything else, it’s getting harder to call what you saw an actual “film.”