The Last Unicorn Screening Tour

A few weeks back, on the evening of May 10th, I attended the Last Unicorn Screening Tour when it came to Toronto. It was in the Cineplex in Dundas Square and it was a humid night. I had bought my tickets in advance because I did not want to miss the chance to meet Peter S. Beagle, the author of both the book and the screenplay. I have loved this movie since I was a child and fell in love with the book when I read it for the first time a few years ago. I’ve also read The Line Between, a book of short stories by Beagle which contains a sequel to The Last Unicorn, and I loved that too. Am I being overly dramatic here? Sorry, I just really find his writing and this movie truly moving and beautiful and really wanted to get him to autograph my copy of the book.

Cover of 'The Last Unicorn,' Blu-Ray edition

Although I bought my tickets in advance, I really had no idea how popular this event would be. I have never known many people who like this movie. Growing up, it seemed to just be me, and hence I typically watched it alone, although I sometimes watched it with someone else. I also had never attended a screening tour before. So I was surprised when I got to the theatre, slightly over half an hour in advance of the screening, and found an enormous line of people from the previous screening at 4 (it was now around 6:30) waiting to get to the merch booth and meet Mr. Beagle. When I went into the theatre, I discovered it was packed. Some fans had come in costume: the unicorn, the butterfly, Molly Grue, and Amalthea all graced the crowd. The girl sitting next to me had a The Last Unicorn tattoo on her arm. The movie was a lot more popular and dear to people than I had anticipated.

The unicorn meets the red bull

The unicorn meets the red bull

I was so happy to see the movie on the big screen, although embarrassed when I cried over Molly yelling at the unicorn, the unicorn being distressed at being turned into a human woman, and the end of the movie. I was still drying to dry up my tears and my runny nose when the lights came back on and Mr. Beagle’s manager started addressing the crowd. There was a Q&A with Mr. Beagle which was interesting and I got to learn more about the history of the movie and also about his writing. Then I had to run to the ATM and get cash so I could buy some of the cool stuff available, which included art work, books, T-shirts, and even leggings. I came away with a lovely picture of Amalthea reaching towards the clouds where a cloud shaped like a unicorn gallops and another of Beagle’s books, a book of short stories entitled Sleight of Hand. Then I got both that book and my copy of The Last Unicorn signed and got to chat with the author for a few minutes. I don’t meet too many famous or semi-famous people, but I am pleased to report that Mr. Beagle was a very friendly man. I left smiling and kept smiling for some time afterward.

The unicorn wakes up as Amalthea

The unicorn wakes up as Amalthea

Going to the screening tour was a great idea. I had a great night, got some neat stuff. and will remember my meeting with the man who is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers for a long time to come. And I will continue to make a fool out of myself crying over both the book and the movie The Last Unicorn for years to come.

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Maleficent: A Great Take on an Old Tale

Maleficent Promotional Poster

Before I go further, I want to say I really enjoyed this movie. I found some of the special effects annoying and distracting (I felt like they were poked in there just for the sake of it sometimes), but I found Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of the title character to be powerful and appealing, and I thought the background provided for this iconic villain gave her new life, enhanced her character, and that this story was ultimately more interesting than Sleeping Beauty.

Some reviewers believe that the backstory is unnecessary and just over-complicates a simple fairy tale; they say the villain can just be evil because they’re evil and that’s good enough sometimes. In this case, at least, I wholeheartedly disagree. As I said in my review of Sleeping Beauty, I find the characters and plot of that movie to be quite thin. It worked for me when I was a child, but the effect really wasn’t the same when I watched it as an adult (although I will still watch it for its gorgeous animation). I prefer Disney movies in which the villains have more defined reasons for being evil, such as Scar in The Lion King and Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Knowing why the villain is so villainous, in my opinion, makes for a stronger character and thus also for a better story. For me, the original Maleficent (although an awesome looking character – she’s one of my favourite animated villains in terms of design) did not have a solid motivation for cursing Aurora. She was offended at not being invited to the christening – but why? Why should she have been invited? Who exactly is she? Why does Stefan know her? What the hell is going on? – Maleficent answers these questions for me.

Original animated Maleficent in King Stefan's Court

Original animated Maleficent in King Stefan’s Court

In the new movie, the title character curses Aurora to get revenge on the king. You see, Stefan and Maleficent were supposedly in love, but then Stefan got really ambitious and saw a chance to become king. The dying king (dying because he tried to take over the moors and was injured by Maleficent in the attempt) says he will appoint the one who slays Maleficent as his successor. Stefan pretends to be warning here, earns her trust again, then drugs her so that he can kill her. He loses his nerve, but then uses iron to burn of her huge, beautiful wings. He takes the wings back to the king as proof that he has done the deed. Stefan becomes king while Maleficent becomes bitter and vengeful. The scene in which she awakes without her wings and sorrowfully wails over her loss and the wrong which has been done to her is heart-wrenching and painfully beautiful.

The main character is a darkly beautiful centerpiece to the film. I loved the costumes worn by Jolie: I thought they were elegant although fear-instilling and that they were true to the original character (I admit that I may be biased because of an interest in Goth fashion). Nonetheless, as some others have also noted, I did find Jolie’s enhanced cheek bones a bit overdone and distracting. Even if she is supposed to look otherworldly, there’s no point in taking things to the point where the audience can’t stop staring at this one bizarre feature. I also found her lipstick a little overdone. It’s supposed to make her look a ethereal, a fairy with ruby-red lips, but I found it looked more like a fairy wearing a lot of lipstick, even if it was a lovely colour.

maleficent-angelina-jolie

I have only two real criticisms of this film, one being more serious than the other. The first is that I didn’t find the three fairies who take care of Aurora for the first sixteen years of her life anywhere near as entertaining as the three from the original movie (I also wondered why their names had been changed¬† from Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather to Flittle, Thistlewhit, and Knotgrass, although I’m sure I can find this information with enough effort). In Sleeping Beauty, these three were the best part; in Maleficent, they are more annoying and seemingly included as a throwback to the original. I also questioned how it was they never noticed Aurora hanging out with Maleficent – there’s slightly incompetent and bumbling, and then there’s just plain irresponsible. These three were irresponsible – they didn’t notice a huge fairy dressed in black hanging around their house and talking to the girl. Oh yeah, and that fairy is the one who cursed the girl. The original trio was not this insanely dumb.

The second problem is that I dislike Disney’s attempts to rework the traditional romantic plot and ideas of true love. Frozen had the act of true love which saves Anna be her saving her sister Elsa from being murdered, ignoring the fact that Kristoff leaves Anna in Arendelle out of love and that Olaf almost melts for her. In Maleficent, it is the dark fairy’s kiss on Aurora’s cheek which awakens her from eternal slumber. I find these endings to be contrived and an obvious answer to criticisms launched against Disney for the traditional storylines. While I don’t support the frankly shallow and flaky relationships of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, I see nothing wrong with those of Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Showing other forms of love is perfectly fine and positive, but I prefer the method used by Brave, which simply tells a different type of story, rather than upsetting expectations in a manner which makes the ending super-predictable.

Although I present these few criticisms, the good things I have enumerated outweigh these negatives in my mind, and so I will certainly be watching this movie again when it comes out on DVD. I thought the story was strong, exciting, and an interesting take on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, one which I frankly prefer to the original Disney film.

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Sleeping Beauty: A Snooze of a Princess Movie?

I recently watched Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a classic from my childhood, and I was disappointed to discover that it did not hold up into adulthood. This viewing was not the first time that I had watched it as an adult – I watched it a few years ago when I purchased the 50th anniversary edition – but I wasn’t being very critical on that occasion, being too wrapped up in the nostalgia of watching the three good fairies failing at housekeeping, two of them (Flora and Merryweather) battling over Aurora’s dress should be pink or blue, and listening to Aurora and Prince Philip sing Once Upon a Dream. This time when I watched it, I was faced with something that I think I was trying to deny previously: although the animation is beautiful and the use of medieval imagery is strong, the characters are flat and the storyline is thin.

Before I complain about the problems in this film, I’ll give it credit for its good points. The first highlight is that it incorporates medieval imagery extremely well, creating an eye-catching medieval world. The opening with the storybook depicts a Gothic manuscript – the script is modeled after a Gothic script, the pictures are in a Gothic style, and the animators have even thought to decorate the edges of the pages with marginalia, capturing the detail and complexity of such a book. When we “jump into” the book, the animation is similar to the pictures, thus using the style of medieval art to create the animated medieval landscape. Additionally, Maleficent’s henchmen resemble the grotesques found in the marginalia of Gothic manuscripts (furthering the feeling that we have entered the book), she has a pet raven, a bird which appears in skaldic poetry (a form of Old Norse poetry) describing warfare because of its association with carrion, and she herself turns into a dragon, a common enemy for medieval heroes (Beowulf, Siegfried, and St. George all face dragons).

The use of lightness vs. darkness and the colour green is also impressive in the creation of setting. Stefan’s kingdom is always filled with richly dressed people and colourful flying banners. By contrast, Maleficent’s Forbidden Mountain is dark and occupied with dancing grotesque ghouls. The forest where Aurora lives with the fairies under the name Briar Rose is lush green and inhabited by cute forest animals who are her friends and who dance with her. The Forbidden Mountain and the fire which Maleficent breathes as a dragon also contain heavy tones of green, but it is an acid green, one that inspires fear rather than the comfort suggested by the sunny forest.

As lovely as all of this is, it doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t much to the characters. When we meet the sixteen-year-old Aurora, she is very pretty and she sings beautifully, but there isn’t much else to say about who she is as a person. The only other points we have are that she is lonely and dreams of falling in love. And then she falls in love with Philip having only met him once and not even knowing his name (the movie seems to try to justify this through the lyrics of Once Upon a Dream). Aurora proceeds to cry her eyes out on discovering that she is a princess, betrothed to a prince (who she doesn’t know is the same man she just met), and cannot see the guy from the woods ever again. Her sorrow (which really doesn’t seem grounded) allows Maleficent to take advantage of her and lead her to the spindle which pricks her finger and causes her to fall asleep. Her image is not aided by the fact that she doesn’t speak for the second half of the movie. If anyone wants to talk about princesses being weak and being bad role models for young girls and so on, Aurora is your poster woman.

However, Philip really isn’t a whole lot better than Aurora; he is actually equally weak and underdeveloped. He falls in love with Aurora (also not recognizing who she is) just as quickly as she does with him, and he tells his father that he won’t marry the princess when she returns to her father’s kingdom, but instead will marry the peasant girl from the woods. Then he relies heavily on the fairies to escape from the dungeon, kill Maleficent, and awaken Aurora. This Prince Charming really doesn’t seem all that smart or capable.

Maleficent, although obviously quite evil, does not seem to have a reason for being as evil as she is. We don’t know why she rules the Forbidden Mountain or what her purpose in life is. We know she antagonizes Stefan and the fairies, but we have no idea why. She is evil because she is and we are just supposed to accept that and move on. Although this works decently for children, adults are not likely to buy it and will leave the movie with questions.

Sleeping Beauty is a movie that looks beautiful but which does not have much below its surface. The princess, prince, and villain are all underdeveloped, so although children may find the silly, simple fairy tale appealing, most adults will probably not derive much enjoyment from this film. I can only hope that the release of Maleficent in May will create a better story on the same basic premises.

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