Finally, there is one more example of how vital a movie’s visuals can be in order for it to have made it past the commission board at all, and it is possibly the most convincing of them all. For this we have to yank Titanic director James Cameron back here by the belt-hooks, because the main contender for ‘a film that without its visual effects would be less entertaining than a midnight TV test-screen’ – is Avatar. Showcasing cutting edge performance capture and 3D technology like nothing seen before, Avatar is without a doubt a stroke of ocular genius. But – and this isn’t even denied by Cameron himself – the film is basically a vehicle for its effects. With just enough attention to plot and characterization to make the audience engage with the screen in front of them, Avatar is living, sequel-spawning proof that the merit of even the most high-profile films can depend almost one hundred percent on their visual achievements.
And in a handy little twist that is particularly ironic here, Avatar’s Production Designer was (it feels as though some kind of drum roll is needed for this) none other than the director of Maleficent himself, Robert Stromberg. Stromberg’s pre-directorial filmography is highly impressive; Concept Artist for The Hunger Games, 3:10 to Yuma, Shutter Island, and Pirates of the Caribbean (among others), and Production Designer for Life of Pi, the man clearly knows his way around an effect.
It’s not surprising then that it is also Stromberg who is responsible for saving the virtual lives of many more films that without their visuals could have gone out in a blaze of very little glory: as Production Designer for both Oz; The Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland, and Visual Effects Supervisor for novel-to-screen massacre that was The Golden Compass (thank God someone was supervising something on that film– much of The Golden Compass gives the impression that the monkeys from Jumanji were in charge for most of the time). Stromberg’s strong eye for the role of visuals in a movie can apparently bring credibility most anywhere. Which brings us neatly back to the issue with which we started – of whether or not Maleficent’s obvious flaws can be excused on the basis that visually it does exactly what it intended to do, and brings to life a Disney classic in a memorable way.