Maleficent‘s apparent commercial success has led Disney to announce that it’s adapting other popular animated films in its library as live action pictures. Among those planned for reimagineering: Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and The Jungle Book.
Maleficent, which I’ve seen but not reviewed, is (like Frozen) at best a mediocre movie. With a visual artist directing Linda Woolverton’s interesting script, the fairy tale becomes a fantasy with a touch of the legendary. The happy, young fairy warrior princess of the woods turns dark when she is wronged by the human who will become King Stefan and one of the most interesting aspects is that Stefan is a near-perfect dramatization of the man who lives life in the middle; he is a pragmatist who seeks to avoid living to the extreme. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is the opposite; she possesses strength, beauty and power and when she goes bad the world goes dark, too. The blonde girl she curses, Aurora (Elle Fanning), returns goodness to Maleficent’s life and their scenes together are the best. But the visuals are uneven – some too cute and artificial, others are striking and grand – and the story ultimately contradicts itself and plays it right down the middle. That said, Jolie evokes Norma Desmond and Maleficent has moments of moving, sultry mythology.
They are only fragments, however, and Disney (which often dumps what makes it Disney) is getting worse at integrating disparate parts as Maleficent demonstrates. This is why the studio looks increasingly to subcontract, rather than cultivate, creative talent. As with its Marvel microstudio, the strategy has limits.
Beauty and the Beast will reportedly be directed by Bill Condon, who has a mixed record of biopics, vampire films and one middling musical, Dreamgirls. The 1991 animated feature, which Disney adapted for Broadway in 1994, earned $375 million worldwide. As I’ve written, I don’t think the picture holds up. An adaptation’s success depends on the script and the casting. Judging by Maleficent, which includes bad casting and worse directing, expectations should be low. The live action version of Cinderella, directed by the talented Kenneth Branagh (Thor), should be better in such capable hands, though the evasive glass slipper pseudo-trailer is a bad sign, and The Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling’s stories and to be directed by Jon Favreau (Cowboys & Aliens) may be watered down by studio intervention. These are great stories with larger than life themes and possibilities. But this is the 21st century and the Disney studio is more of a generic company selling tickets based on what used to be its brand than a studio that trains masters of storytelling to create works of art. This moviegoer and storyteller is managing expectations and keeping an active mind.