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I feel the need to mention this as the picture at one point was going to be directed by Mark Romanek as a much darker movie. I would have thought this is what Disney wanted the way Maleficent turned out to be a such a depressing and ill-fitting fairytale makeover that pulled in a ridiculous amount of money. But when director Kenneth Branagh was brought on to the project, he could see there was more to the story worth exploring without overhauling the entire narrative.
While Branagh mostly plays the fairytale straight, he does expand the characters just enough without damaging the wonder of the original codex. Lily James is given much more to do as the titular character who is given far more to work with as opposed to standing around as a pretty face. She does her best keep up a cheerful spirit despite the misfortune of being reduced to a maid by her stepmother after the death of her father. Character development favors songs as we get build up Cinderella as a girl we want to get the prince.
Here is where the picture really gets interesting as Cinderella and the prince have a pleasing chemistry. In their first meeting riding horses across a field, the two share their thoughts and ideas about hunting. Rather than just being shy kids who are thrown together by beauty, there’s a reason to hope they end up together. It’s as if Branagh took the original material and injected it with a much needed dose of character development. Even the royal ball – which was practically all dancing and beauty that won the prince’s heart – features the two characters dashing off to a private room to talk some more. It makes the prince’s quest to seek her out via glass slipper more understandable than fantastical.
But, of course, Cinderella still retains all the magic of the animated movie as well. The cooperative mice help out our future princess, the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) comically casts some spells and the ball is a beautiful sight of golden interiors and period clothing. Once again, Branagh polishes these familiar elements without retooling them. He finds the fun in it all without dumbing it down or amping it up. A lesser director may have taken the scene where the carriage transforms back into a pumpkin as an opportunity for an action-worthy race against time. It was my first thought as I saw the carriage swerve around a cliff side road. I braced myself for the moment where Cinderella dangles off the side of the carriage as her animal pals struggle to lift her to safety. Thankfully, Branagh narrowly avoids this moment that would have easily taken me out of the movie.
And, ultimately, the tone of Cinderella is just pleasing and enjoyable. The stepmother’s slaving of her daughter to chores is not treated with a drab palette and the romance of prince for his future wife is not overdone. While I still have a nostalgic spot in my heart for Disney’s original animated movie, it’s generally savaged by critics for its flat portrayals. In that sense, this live-action Cinderella is more of the adult version – not in content, but in writing. Now I can fully enjoy the magical splendor of fairy godmothers and helpful mice without noticing glaring issues with the script. It’s a real treat from beginning to end and rather old-fashioned for maintaining its graceful fantasy tone.
The story starts off simple enough, but soon twists itself into a series of love triangles. There is a good part of the forest with plants and fairies and a bad part of the forest inhabited with swamps and bugs. The good-natured Fairy Kingdom is about to have a wedding as the ecstatic princess Marianne is to be wed to the cocky Roland. But when she discovers that Roland has secretly given his heart to another, Marianne quickly sheds her princess persona to become a hardened warrior vowing never to fall in love again. Fairies must have wicked mood swings to go from romanced royalty to battle-hungry soldier in a few minutes. Perhaps the abundance of too much splendor in an overly cheerful forest kingdom brings out a quick wish to strife.
While Marianne builds up her angst, her best friend Dawn becomes kidnapped by the evil Bog King of the dark swamp lands. This comes just as the shy elf Sunny has acquired a love potion he hopes will win him the heart of Dawn. But when Dawn inhales the potion, the person she spots to fall in love with is the Bog King. Thus begins an adventure tale of sword fights, giant forest creatures, romance and musical numbers.
While all the songs are sung by different characters in context to their current emotions, these are all cover songs of classic rock and pop tunes. Nearly all the songs are actually sung by the lead voice actors Evan Rachael Wood and Alan Cumming. While their singing voices are more than decent, it made me wonder how much better they’d fair with more original songs as opposed to the overly familiar melodies of Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. George Lucas stated that he initially wanted to have Beatles songs, but they were too expensive. While it might have made the music a little more interesting, I doubt it would’ve improved the presentation nor would the other idea to simply make the movie an opera.
The biggest hurdle for any animated film to conquer – especially one that has been tossed around to various companies – is the animation itself. In terms of design and texture, this computer animated world doesn’t look half-bad. There was certainly some detail put into this as one of the cast members remarked how many changes her character’s hair went through. And while it’s pleasing to see computer animation with designs more anatomical than stylized, it certainly could have used more appeal. Maybe it was due to the production lasting 15 years in various stages, but the characters resembled those old animation tutorials I used to use in college. The fairies, trolls and elves all resemble designs that seem ripped straight from a student animation. It’s an A+ student project, mind you, but this is a theatrical animated picture we’re talking about written by an accomplished filmmaker.
There is some humor and spunk to Strange Magic, but it’s just as shoehorned in as the musical numbers amid a twisty plot of romances. All of the appeal – progressively appealing as it seems – just narrowly misses the mark. The animation is decent, but most kids are not going to respond to an animated film of decent quality. The songs are a charming addition, but outplay their welcome as the relation grows more base with the on-screen emotions. And, most importantly, it all just doesn’t blend as well it should. A fairy romance/action/musical animated picture may work someday, but not with this movie. With its fluctuating tones and simple story elements, Strange Magic is more strange than magical.
The movie begins innocent enough portraying Maleficent as a curious, young fairy of the forest who fancies a prince that wanders into her domain. The two form a relationship, but their souls grow apart as the kingdom of humans threatens to encroach on the magical forest. Battles ensue between the king’s army of knights and Maleficent’s army of trees. Eventually the prince must make a serious choice about where he stands by cutting off the wings of his secret love. And this is the moment where the story loses all its character and tone the way Maleficent being de-winged is staged as a rape allegory with her being drugged, sliced and crying in a pool of her tears in the morning.
This would seem to be the setup for a darker path of a villain given how horribly wronged she was by her first love. But once we get to the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the iconic scene of the wicked witch cursing the princess, the movie starts dipping down into the depths of a mediocre fan-fiction. Rather than despise Sleeping Beauty and attempt to keep her comatose for eternity, the magical matriarch regrets her decision after years of watching over her like a mother hen. Rather than harbor some fleeting emotions of their earlier romance, Maleficent and the prince-turned-king are simplistic enemies. And rather than Sleeping Beauty being awakened by the kiss of a prince, she’s actually awakened by Maleficent herself.
All of this staged as if to imply that the true story of Sleeping Beauty was a massive coverup by a patriarchal society. There’s nothing wrong with rewriting a fairytale from a different perspective, but this one appears more vindictive than creative. The best part of the picture is Angelina Jolie as the cackling and sinister Maleficent, embodying the role as no other actor could. The worst part of the movie is everything else. The character that surround Maleficent’s arc are all one-dimensional. The king who descends into madness has no buildup – one scene he’s a boy in love with a fairy, the next he’s a babbling madman swinging a sword. Prince Charming appears in the picture, but only as a worthless red herring. The three fairies that watch over Sleeping Beauty are just forced comic relief embodying a female version of The Three Stooges. And Sleeping Beauty herself would have been better off spending the entire movie asleep with how little she has to say or do.
The consensus among both the writer, director and Jolie was that they felt compelled to make this movie as an aspiring figure for little girls. Sure, because this is what little girls want to see in a movie, right? They don’t want a fantasy story filled with enchantment and wonder – they want rape allegories and pathos in a tone-deaf revenge tale. The movie is entirely dependent on Jolie’s performance to hold this rickety narrative together that tacks on CGI battles and light humor. At its best, the grand effects of walking trees and fire-breathing dragons is serviceable. At its worst, the bickering of the fairies will have you tearing your hair out in annoyance.
Maleficent features Angelina Jolie all dolled up as the perfect villain with nowhere to go. She leaves behind every single actor in the dust as if her magical powers sucked every ounce of character out of the cast. Even her companion – a crow that transforms into a man – isn’t much for conversation. Though given how terrible the dialogue is of the three fairies, maybe he got off lucky. It’s such a shame that the marvelous talents of Jolie are wasted on a ham-fisted script where she has to act against cardboard characters. Sure, she’s a memorable character for rediscovering love and she emits a palpable charm, but at what cost? I want to love her and this movie, but it’s hard to do that when this picture refuses to define its characters or pick a consistent tone.