I saw Maleficent last night. I have really been looking forward to it, and made a point of seeing it as soon as possible. That should surprise no one. I love stories about villains, and I love cartoons. Maleficent is live action, but inspired by a cartoon. Plus, the story I guessed from the trailers sounded clever. I was intrigued.
I liked the movie and would recommend it.
OKAY THAT IS ALL YOU GET WITHOUT SPOILERS. FROM THIS POINT ON, I MAKE NO ATTEMPT TO AVOID REVEALING ANYTHING.
Because, see, the movie is interesting to me as a writer, and I'd like to discuss that.
First, the fairies. Disney has traditionally represented fairies in Tinkerbell fashion, as sweet and friendly little bug-winged girls, or beautiful elfin women. That has always bugged me. They successfully hid from large portions of our population what actual folk tale fairies are like.
This movie was way closer. Sometimes hideous, sometimes beautiful, sometimes mischievous, sometimes generous, sometimes paranoid and hostile, almost none of the fairies in Maleficent look very human. Strong animal and plant themes match Victorian art. The fairy designs were gorgeous and weird, and I kept looking for the 'stolen shamelessly from Patrick Woodroffe' credit after the movie. In all seriousness, I'd give it 50/50 he was an inspiration for the artists. The dragons and the water spirits in particular had that look. Fairy behavior was still pretty bawdlerized, but at least they hinted at the chaotic fae nature.
Now to the story.
What really interested me professionally was how the writers kept the forms of a fairy tale, but did not let those drag them down. Fairy tales are simple stories with dramatic plot elements, symbolism, and rely on an omniscient narrator to label characters as archtypes instead of developing them as people. Needless to say, all of that is a problem with modern storytelling standards. Disney's Sleeping Beauty, which inspires this movie, stuck to those standards closely. The characters were two dimensionally shallow. You were told what the characters were like, and then they performed plot points with no reference to if that suited their character. I will avoid the complete rant, but Disney Princess movies have had a big problem with following that pattern without keeping the simple, powerful symbolism of fairy tales.
Maleficent completely reverses this trend, beautifully synthesizing modern storytelling needs and the fairy tale structure. It does so by using tiny amounts of establishment to create a feel of character development instead of dwelling on that development. The crow only has to bring baby Aurora a flower to nurse from and be petted once, and you understand that he loves the child and are prepared for everything he does later. The narrator tells you the king goes mad, then gives you one brief scene where the king is so obsessed with talking to the voices of his own guilt. Boom, he's not just some guy who goes crazy - you understand why, and the nature of his madness. You don't see it build, but you feel like you did. Miraculously, this technique makes Aurora interesting. She's blessed with beauty, happiness, grace, and being loved. They show her smiling and laughing happily at even things she should be afraid of as a small child, and when she grows older she doesn't feel like a cardboard cutout with 'GOOD' stamped on it.
Consistency is a big part of this. When you're told what someone's like, they act like that instead of making a vague show of it and then performing plot points.
This technique allows the movie to cover up the truly tiny amounts of character development and exploration it contains. It proves to you that these characters are who they're supposed to be, and gets back to the grand battles of good vs. evil, acts of magic, prophecies, and dramatic, even exaggerated plot points. Only Maleficent gets serious character development time.
...and that works. That's why I'm fascinated. They trick the viewer into feeling like the characters are deep and explored. They pull off a modern story and a fairy tale both. It's excellent writing.
As an author myself, I had to talk about that.
Also, good movie. Go see it.
PS - And I would be remiss not to mention that this movie kicks the Disney 'True Love' stereotype in the teeth. Again. Two in a row, with Frozen. As far as I'm concerned, they can keep doing that.