As part of my goal to see more movies in the theater, I’ve been taking… well, I can’t call them “risks,” because everything I saw was a crowd-pleasing hit. But the three I’m writing about were targeted more towards female audiences, and of course, everyone is waiting with baited breath to find out what a childless man in his 40s thinks of these. Right?
Hm. Lot of tumbleweeds suddenly blew through the room.
Frozen (2013, dir. Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)
Theater: Mann 6, Hopkins (2nd run)
I get it. I get why people like the movie, despite it’s flaws. I thought the third act was a terrific reversal of the Standard Disney Ending. But good heavens, getting to that ending was like a long slog up a mountain in waist-deep snow.
This is one of those movies where I feel like I can see the script revisions that came in halfway through. There’s a very compelling film to be made about the relationship between two sisters, however we never see that relationship beyond the first scene. It would make more sense dramatically if one or both of the sisters were sent away, allowing their personalities and a sense of “did I do something wrong?” to develop, rather than the confusing idea that they’re in the same castle but never see each other.
There was no commitment in the script to the world. It’s, what, 18th century Norway? But everyone talks like they’re posting to their Facebook page. A Disney movie can support maybe one anachronistic comedy relief character, but it shouldn’t be the protagonist.
The main thing that trips Frozen up is that it’s more concerned with The Point That It Is Making rather than the story it’s telling. Elsa is not developed as a character so much as a metaphor for female repression.
Again, let me stress that I get why people like this movie. It’s a step in the right direction, and must feel like a glass of ice water in the desert. What I’m saying is, let’s fix the flaws in this one, too.
Malificent (2014, dir. Robert Stromberg)
Theater: The El Capitan, Los Angeles (3D screening)
I enjoyed Malificent more than Frozen, though the two movies came from the same studio, have the same point, and indeed, share virtually the same climax. But there is a big, big, big ol’ honkin’ plot hole in it that everyone’s just supposed to ignore.
Aurora’s mother. No, her actual mother.
The film’s conflict is between Malificent and the evil king who loved her as a boy, betrayed her as a man, cut off the analogy for her power as a woman (her wings), and then married another woman and fathered a child. The guy is presented as a complete scumbag (fine, he’s the bad guy in a Disney film), and Aurora’s mother, the Queen, is barely present as a character at all, except to plead that Malificent not kill her daughter outright.
Aurora is then sent off to live with the fairy godmothers in the woods, never knowing who her real parents are. The mother then dies, off screen, never having seen her child again.
Think about that for a moment.
The movie, however, quickly glosses over this woman because it wants you to see Aurora not as an innocent who has been ripped from her mother and father out of a thirst for vengeance, but as the daughter Malificent and the King would have had. Malificent softens to Aurora almost immediately, protecting her and making sure she’s well taken care off (the good fairies sent by the king as guardians are comedic goofs). And eventually Aurora comes to think of Malificent as her fairy godmother.
I brought this up on Twitter, and had one person suggest that the Queen was meant to be the old-style Disney Princess, the kind that the company was trying to leave behind. But she’s not. Aurora is is the oldest of old-school fairy tale princesses. Everyone loves her as soon as they meet her, and her personality could be succinctly described as “she’s so nice.”
At no point does she ever ask about her real mother. At no point is it discussed that Malificent’s actions have driven her father insane. The evil king dies, Malificent gets her metaphor back, and a brand new daughter to boot.
Divergent (2014, dir. Neil Burger)
Theater: Mann 6, Hopkins
I went into Divergent blank, knowing only that it was based on a book, and had a female protagonist. In fact, I had it confused with a trailer I saw for another teen SF movie, and may have ended up paying more attention to it as it went on.
Divergent is the best movie of the three, in that it feels like a complete cinematic experience rather than a commentary on the female-focused films that have come before it. Briefly, Tris (Shailene Woodley) lives in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where everyone is sorted into five cultures: smart people, warriors, farmers, lawyers, and servants/governors. At 16 you choose which clan to join and are expected to think and behave in very rigidly set ways. Tris is, surprise, surprise, Divergent, which means she can think in several different ways to a crisis, and this is a capital offense, punishable by death. Fine, whatever, what’s a YA novel (or Role Playing Game) without an absurd societal premise.
Tris leaves her servant family behind to join the warriors (Dauntless, they’re called), because she longs for a life of adventure. What I liked about the way Divergent unfolded was that the film dealt with the fact that Tris had never had any physical or combat training before she joined them. When she gets into sparring matches, she gets the crap kicked out of her when she tries to go toe-to-toe with better (and bigger) fighters, and has to learn to use speed and tactics. The movie deals with her as a character, and how that specific character would have to respond to the obstacles in the story.
And being “divergent” simply means she can think differently. It doesn’t give her magical powers to defeat people using cool special effects, it doesn’t make her telekinetic, or invulnerable to harm.
Of course there’s a love interest, a tragic past, and a secret plot that must be defeated against all odds, but those are standard issue for a summer action film. The film gives us a female protagonist, though, without just doing a gender flip in the script. It is an enjoyable action movie based on a YA novel, that just happens to have a female protagonist.