When people are asked why they watch films, the answers are all fairly predictable: To see different worlds, to learn something new, to relate to something, to widen their perspectives, to escape… But whether moviegoers are after the cerebral experience, or are simply out for easy entertainment, there is one basic thing that connects all these reasons together. This is that what we essentially get from a film is something to look at. A cinema screen is big and optical because we watch it (and because if it was small and acoustic it’d be a radio). The visual element of a movie –of a motion picture – is literally essential.
But as painfully obvious as all this sounds, it is surprising how often the overall role of a movie’s visuals can be overlooked.
As part of Disney’s growing trend in bringing classic animations to live action form (Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast are all on the way), Maleficent’s task of following the 1959 animation Sleeping Beauty was at once extremely easy (because it could copy the cartoon drawings), and extremely difficult (because it had to copy the cartoon drawings). As straightforward as it might sound to create something from a ready-made template, this is long-revered Disney canon – and Maleficent clearly experienced the difficulty in achieving this balance.
The script and humour are weak, even taking into account the fact it is a Disney film, there are some dubious short cuts in the plot (one of which involves the castle staff having clearly struggled with what was meant by “destroy the spinning wheels”), and the overall pace is so rushed that in some scenes we can only assume that the set was on fire. The supporting cast have also been criticized (chameleon-voiced Sharlto Copley was always going to be horribly underused in this film; he is simply far more as an actor than this role allows and the result feels something like trying to fit a parachute into a wallet – tight and uncomfortable when in the right place it works perfectly). Perhaps worst of all though is that for a film that is aiming to bring more substance to an existing tale, some of the central characters’ motivations border on the inexplicable.
But. Crucially, there are places in which the reproducing – and the embellishment – of those much loved illustrations has been done beautifully. Angelina Jolie in the title role is something close to live action translation perfection, her resemblance to the classic version uncanny, her manner easily mirroring Maleficent’s maniacal balance between jollity and malice. There is much nostalgic joy to be found in the appearances of Maleficent’s infamous costume and shadow, and in the loyal reproduction of iconic sequences such as the cursing of the baby and the juddering, ugly growth of the wall of thorns. Elle Fanning’s disarmingly lovely smile lends believability to the story’s twist on Aurora and Maleficent’s relationship, and Copley is at the very least a convincing physical double for the original King Stefan. The expanded story too allows for some gorgeous imaginings; the magical realm of The Moors is an oasis by day and a carnival of flickering neon lights against blue-black by night, and shots of the young Aurora running in wide golden meadows and of Maleficent herself standing amidst the dull coldness of the thorns add the sort of natural substance that is hoped for in an live-action adaptation, while views such as the castle’s silhouette against the sunset preserve the fairy-tale atmosphere.
Admittedly, Maleficent’s visuals aren’t perfect (whoever was responsible for the approach to the three fairies needs to be made to walk barefoot over a floor of Lego pieces), and of course, we do usually need more from a film than for it to look nice. But the main problem seems to be that despite Maleficent in many ways achieving its aim of giving real life to an existing classic, this isn’t considered enough to overcome its other faults.
The type of visual effects that are most celebrated are usually those that are used in some cleverly subtle way to contribute to the story that is already being told (see for example Tyler Durden’s sporadic single frame appearances in Fight Club), or those that have a more central role (Pacific Rim was about as subtle as the plague), but the fact is that all movies depend in some way on their visual element and what those visuals are intended to do is often very different. Which all seems to present the perfect opportunity to have a look at the good, the bad and the downright ugly of this most vital aspect of moviemaking.