But instead of teaching a lesson about greed and deprivation, grievance or forgiveness, or what it really means to be prone to evil, Jolie’s maudlin confession is a pacifist message that ignores the psychological basis of war — the historic reality and human propensity that fairy tales and myths were designed to explain.
By combining the concept of “hero” and “villain” into a new female deity, Maleficent/Jolie implies that audiences cease to identify enemies and opposites and commit to an all-are-one embrace. (This could have come straight from Jolie’s awful 2007 Daniel Pearl tearjerker A Mighty Heart: “I am not terrorized!”) Ms. Benetton doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing: How will she justify to her multicultural brood that the film’s one black character is meted stereotypical punishment? Or why Prince Philip, Aurora’s fated rescuer, is neutered into banality? Or how mythic totems of fear and malevolence (the arching horns, sharp cheeks, clawlike nails, baleful eyes) are upended into bland emblems of unconvincing benevolence?
Despite attempts at transforming patriarchic fairytales into modern political correctness (is there no end to Shrek
’s assault on popular imagination?), Maleficent
lacks a necessary sense of enchantment. Director Robert Stromberg uses boilerplate F/X in which young winged Maleficent flies like a sinister Wonder Woman, her magical valley resembles planet Pandora in Avatar
, the sprightly creatures look like rubber Ewoks, the tree-monster protectors recall Aronofsky’s Noah
, and her dragon looks like all the other CGI dragons. Anyone who’s seen the recent visionary Chinese epics The Promise, Curse of the Golden Flower, Hero, The Sacrifice, The Forbidden Kingdom, Kung Fu Hustle, Journey to West
will pity Hollywood’s imbecile notions of fantasy.
There’s no imagination in this effort to rework Sleeping Beauty. The 3D is just a just a ticket-gouging ploy, and where Maleficent’s physical concept fails to make sense (is she based on a bat or a raven, a demon or a bicorn?), Jolie’s performance is as tired and humorless as Glenn Close’s clueless attempt at camp in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians reboot. Beneath her horns and cape, the once-sexy Jolie seems a dull schoolmarm. All that’s certain is Jolie and Disney’s intention to overturn fundamental moral precepts. They miss the point of the great Disney animation, where whimsy and dread were perfectly, elegantly stylized in unforgettable, sublimely non-realistic images. Instead, Maleficent repeats the trend of the most unoriginal contemporary fantasies and action movies from Harry Potter to Twilight. Its rehabilitation of evil isn’t alarming, just insipid. Maleficent is Dark because it is a modern vulgarization of enlightenment.
Like most smart-alecks, Seth MacFarlane thinks more of himself than of his audience. After his animated TV show Family Guy trumped The Simpsons, forcing that earlier classic series to desperately imitate Family Guy’s brand of politically-partisan, anti-Christian tirades, MacFarlane sought feature-film domination — seemingly for the hell of it, to judge by his new movie A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Apparently MacFarlane only wants to pull down his smarty-pants. This parody Western shows no fondness for the venerable genre (the title sequence roaming Monument Valley neglects history, mythology, and nature — it’s second-unit soulless). The story of a craven sheepherder (MacFarlane) falling in love with an outlaw’s moll (Charlize Theron) and dealing with con men and gunslingers doesn’t even rival the standard Western satire Blazing Saddles. MacFarlane’s seeming ignorance of that rude, crude classic indicates downright indifference. He jokes about brothels, penises, slavery, gunplay, defecation, historical hypocrisy, and anachronism with the dullest class-clown motivation.
After the uproar caused by MacFarlane’s bold and brilliant Oscar-hosting stint (mainstream media couldn’t abide how he flaunted Hollywood disingenuousness), this failed Western homage wastes MacFarlane’s chance to make his satire stick. MacFarlane pulls down his pants but his standards go even lower. “I’m not a hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt,” he jests. No great movie comic was ever so self-defeating. It’s doubly embarrassing that he doesn’t use an actor (like either Mark Wahlberg or the Teddy Bear in Ted) but relies on himself. MacFarlane’s beady-eyed doll’s face and pale countenance seem untrustworthy and freaky — quirks that influenced his casting of the equally unlikable Theron, Sarah Silverman, Bill Maher, and Neil Patrick Harris (who unaccountably gets to sing about moustaches — parodying show tunes being MacFarlane’s personal specialty).
It’s now clear that MacFarlane is a knave, not necessarily a satirist but a nihilist comic: he destroys genres, morality, and faith. (“Hate can move mountains” his coward advises.) Bloody death scenes replace wit — which is where Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western parody Django Unchained has this movie beat. McFarlane’s take on the Old West has no real politics, but his complaint “Everything that isn’t you wants to kill you” is as fair a definition of nihilism as present-day movie culture has confessed. “We should all just wear coffins,” his hero says. McFarlane’s title is too prophetic.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.