Holding out for a hero


© Disney

Recently, in a shopping frenzy at the website of a very highbrow Brazilian publisher, who by the way makes beautiful books, I acquired an exquisite (if somewhat disturbing) edition of Aesop’s Fables. In continuing with a self taught storytelling education I’ve been taking, I wanted to compare modern narratives with the very ancient, basic kind of story that is a fable. After reading about half of the book, I gave it up, in theory because I had already learned what I needed but mostly because I got bored (Aesop, it seems, was better at dishing out life lessons than coming up with stories that didn’t involve donkeys and lions). What I learned is, basically, that fables are mostly guided by their purpose, which is to enunciate a “lesson” and then support it with a story so it becomes clear and makes sense (on paper, this happens the other way around – you read the tale and then the lesson – but I imagine the creative process demanded thinking up the lesson first). Because of this, the stories themselves were very short and its characters very simple – they only existed to carry a message across. Not by nothing were most characters animals, as animals carry with them some constructed qualities (donkey – dumbness/stubbornness, lion – courage/pride) that demand little to no characterization by the author. The fable’s characters are caricatures and don’t intend to be relatable, as they portray simple, black and white situations.

This changed over time, when most stories began to acquire a different purpose: to entertain. As entertaining is a much looser objective, stories began to last longer, letting situations play out in their own time (sometimes, in order to entertain more, they would even play out in unexpected ways). But still, characters throughout most of history depended on socially constructed concepts of “hero”, “villain”, “sidekick”, “damsel”, etc. Nobody washed the dishes, nobody did the laundry – characters existed mostly to act out the situations they were put in, which demanded that they be two dimensional exaggerations far removed from actual human beings. This all changed with the advent of literary realism, when authors around the world began challenging the romantic notions that had dominated literature up to the 19th century and their characters began acting more like human beings. They were good, yes, but also bad, brave, lazy, generous, petty – in short, everything we are.

Characters throughout most of history depended on socially constructed concepts of “hero”, “villain”, “sidekick”, “damsel”, etc – but now we need to know the people behind the characters.

With every new medium, the cicle began anew – which is fair, after all, it would be too much to ask of the first moviegoers that they not only accepted the moving images in front of them, but also to deal with actual people (gasp!) in the plots. The same goes for television – only when The Sopranos (or, some would argue, Seinfield) broke out as a mainstream hit did we begin to see people, instead of generic pastiches, become the norm in television narratives. Nowadays, I would daresay that, in any medium, characterization has taken a role as important than plot, if not more, which is to say: what happens is as important as to whom it happens. We have a need now to know characters, their backstories, their struggles, their dreams. We need to empathize, or we just won’t surrender our disbelief.

All of this to say, I saw Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent the other day and didn’t like it. Having seen an excellent performance of Wicked last fall in New York, I was expecting something along the lines – tell the story of how the good girl became the witch, completely subverting story elements to surprise the viewer. But, whereas Wicked opens with the news of the witch’s death (seemingly good news) and then proceeds to make us empathize with the poor green baby hated by her parents, Maleficent opens in the most traditional of ways, with a “once upon a time” in which we meet a lovely little fairy called Maleficent (and here began my distaste for the movie, as Maleficent, I assume, comes from the latin mal, “evil”, and facere, “to do”, so it would mean “evildoer” – why would a nice little fairy be called “evil doer”?). We then see various terribly cliched scenes (the little girl says good morning to and plays with the magical forest inhabitants, she meets a human boy, they play, she falls in love) that are nothing more than flashes of a corny love story we’ve heard thousands of time. We then learn of a terrible king that means to destroy the forest Maleficent lives in, which leads to a horrendous battle scene – it literally made me cringe. It’s neither small enough to be realistic not large enough to be impressive – it’s just awful, like someone trying to remake Lord of the Rings but with a quarter of the budget. Then, to provoke Maleficent’s fall to the dark side, she’s betrayed by her lover, who cuts her wings in a completely character-incoherent scene (we’re supposed to believe that he turned from shy, selfless and in love to heartless and greedy) and gives them to the king, which makes him his successor. To Angelina Jolie’s credit, the scene when she wakes up to find her wings are gone really moved me; it’s one of the few scenes in the whole movie that shows us a three-dimensional person on the other side of the screen.

All in all, it takes the movie thirty full minutes to get to the most anticipated scene – the cursing of Aurora at birth. This is when I realized what was wrong with the movie: the pace was off. It was going nor fast nor low enough – instead giving us twenty minutes of flashes, which doesn’t really allow for good characterization. Take the aforementioned Lord of the Rings – on the first seven minutes of the movie we’re told the whole story of the One Ring, which spans centuries, but then it slows down to a normal pace, never speeding up again. Those centuries in seven minutes are necessary for introduction and context, but then the story is allowed to breathe, and the characters to develop, for three whole movies. Still, I thought, maybe after the cursing scene the story will slow down and we can begin to get to know Maleficent a little bit more (since her “turning bad” is nothing more than making it rain and raising a thorny wall around the woods – she doesn’t seem to be really evil). No such luck.

In another twenty minutes, the movie arrives at the second most important plot point: Aurora meets Maleficent and they begin a friendship out of nowhere. Aurora, it should be noted, is by then fifteen years old – so at the 50-minute mark, the movie has shown us flashes that span more than thirty years of story. No wonder all characters are so cliched. The movie tries to portray Maleficent as a non-traditional character (not quite the hero, not quite villain) but continuously fails to show us a bad side – even when Aurora is a baby, she’s constantly protecting her, her most evil act being the smirk on her face as she does so. She is a hero with no condemning qualities, just as Stephan (the king and her former lover) is a villain with no redeeming ones (he doesn’t seem to love even his own daughter, as the first thing he does when he meets her is locking her up in a tower). Aurora is the perfect damsel in distress; silly, Pollyana at all times, believing everything to be magical and good – it almost makes you wished she pricked her finger on the spinner (which, incidentally, happens twenty minutes after we first hear her talk – see what I mean about pace?) sooner, so she spent a larger portion of the movie sleeping instead of irritating the viewers with her attitude. Due to these terribly rapid pace, the characters have no choice but to behave as their stereotypes command – whenever they don’t, such as when Stephan betrays Maleficent, their attitudes seem fake, out of the blue and in service of the plot.

At the fifty-minute mark, the movie has shown us flashes that span more than thirty years of story – no character can survive that pace.

I’ve always considered there are two ways to tell a person’s story, and can be illustrated in two movies about two very important women in the history of England. The Iron Lady, the 2011 movie in which Meryl Streeps portrays Britain’s only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, chose to show us Margareth’s whole live in its 100 minutes of length. Sure, it does so through flashbacks of a now dementia-ridden old lady, but still, the story simply moves too fast, and we never get to either know or care for Mrs. Thatcher. The other movie, 2006 The Queen, in which Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II, opts instead to introduce us to the monarch by focusing on a single event: the death of Lady Diana Spencer in 1997. In most of its 97 minutes, the movie retells the one week after Lady Di’s death – which allows us to get to know all those involved (mainly the Queen and Tony Blair) and get a sense of who they are. Whereas in the first movie you’re dumped a ton of information and expected to make sense of all of it (The Iron Lady heavily relies on viewer’s knowing of the events portrayed to keep up the pace), the second simply presents a main event and shows the characters reaction and evolution throughout. Needless to say, I believe The Queen‘s path is the one that should be followed.

Sadly, it’s not the one Maleficent chooses. Trying firmly to be true to its source material (which is a mistake, since, after all, the original Sleeping Beauty movie made no effort to justify any of Maleficent’s actions) it becomes a boring sequence of contrived scenes. Even it’s “shocking twist”, which comes when a dumb irrelevant prince tries to wake Aurora from her slumber with a kiss and fails, was spoiled by Disney itself a year earlier in Frozen – true love’s kiss cannot come from meeting someone and falling in love the same day, we learn, but by lasting relationships built through the years and tested by hardships. Which is a nice message (one that is geared more towards Disney creatives, which spoon fed us false concepts of love all throughout our childhood, than the audience) but one we only need to hear once. Nothing in this movie is original, either in concept or execution. One doesn’t get to care about any of the characters or is remotely surprised at any turn of events. I only wished the pace had been more even, instead of slowing down and speeding up with no consistence, so that we could get to know the people between the “once upon a time” and the “happily ever after”.