Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mockbusted #23: Sleeping Beauty

In my review for the recent Disney film Maleficent, I noted that the one saving grace of an otherwise disappointing effort was the standout performance of its lead actress Angelina Jolie. The Asylum mockbuster of the film Sleeping Beauty, or The Legend of Sleeping Beauty depending on which market you’re in, has the opposite problem, which is to say that most of the film is actually pretty good, save the performance of its chief villain. Of course, that’s a much better problem to have in the long run, and at least Maleficent is the villain this time around as it should be even if a long in the tooth Olivia d’Abo isn’t quite up to Jolie’s standards. Also, this movie’s reimagining of the classic tale has zombies and gruesome Mortal Kombat style head/spinal decapitations in it, so really, there’s no contest.

Even including the zombies, which mostly act as a replacement for cost prohibitive CGI thornes as a chief obstacle for the heroes, Sleeping Beauty is actually a more faithful retelling of the original story, which is the case with The Asylum more often than you might think considering their need to use public domain materials to skirt copyright infringement. For one, the titular princess actually does sleep for thousands of years instead of just a few hours, and the good guys are actually there to save her rather than the witch that cursed her in the first place. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t do its own re-envisioning of the characters, here making the Prince a secondary villain and his lowly whipping boy the true hero, but on the whole, the movie captures the rip roaring adventure of the tale more so than Maleficent’s ill-conceived maternal love story.

I should mention the Prince first, because he’s easily the best part of the movie, and in the end probably serves as a better villain than the main antagonist with all her evil powers. The Prince is a snobby, comically inept bastard ready to betray his closest friends at a moment’s notice, basically an adult Geoffry from Game of Thrones with his ruthlessness somewhat tempered by his abject cowardice. He goes right up to the brink of irredeemable just in time to have a (sort-of) redemptive arc, which is just enough to make us care about him as more than just a charismatic bad guy so that his ultimate fate has a greater impact than it otherwise would have. The actor is listed on IMDB as Edward Lewis French, and apparently most of his career has been spent in the background of famous movies with only a few examples of low budget starring roles, but I hope to see him pop up again, at least in more Asylum movies if not more mainstream stuff.

The rest of the cast is solid and really grew on me as the movie went on, led by an actual Game of Thrones alum in Finn Jones (Sir Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers, if you didn’t place the name). Jones plays Barrow, the Prince’s go to sap who he sends into danger at every opportunity, and who retains his loyalty to the Prince despite every indication that he can and should stab the bastard in the face. The rest of the main group, who largely serve as cannon fodder for the castle’s various horrors including the aforementioned zombies and other poorly rendered CGI creatures, are the Prince’s men, mercenary knights who join in on their master’s cruelty until it becomes apparent that the whipping boy is way more of a man than the guy who pays them to be his only friends. I particularly enjoyed Gil Kolirin as the most physically adept of the knights, who lasts the longest and develops a sort of honor bond with Barrow over the course of their shared adversity.

Perhaps I was a bit hard on d’Abo’s Maleficent (here named Tambria to avoid legal action from the Disney company). Its just that the character is so famous and beloved, but this iteration seems to fade into the background more than I would have liked. There’s also a sort of grace that the character should evoke that d’Abo seems to deliberately ignore in favor of a more gruff, brutal portrayal, more direct and less elegant. I found myself missing Jane March, who has played two evil queens in Asylum fantasy pictures that I know of, in Grimm’s Snow White and Jack The Giant Killer at least, and who would have brought a certain sly dignity to the role. When d’Abo’s Tambria stumbles into the party to place her curse upon Not Aurora, it comes off more like that drunk aunt or uncle you never want at a wedding standing up to ruin everything with their toast, which now that I think about it is actually what the character sort of is, but she’s supposed to be threatening enough that you don’t realize it.

This movie actually made me realize a lot of things about the original source material I never considered, to the point where I’m wondering if the actual story of Sleeping Beauty might not be a surprisingly progressive and sexually liberated moral by old school Grimm standards. The whole premise seems to hinge on the futility of trying to keep your daughters from the dangers of being “pricked” before they reach a reasonable age, and the thorns, or in this case the army of the undead, might as well be one big metaphorical chastity belt that the hero inevitably circumvents. Now, you could argue that the whole element of True Love’s Kiss somewhat invalidates this, that it really is about finding the right person to be one’s first, but then remember, that corollary was part of the evil curse, which would suggest to me that the lesson is to let your children explore their sexuality for themselves rather than waste their lives waiting for the perfect, parent approved moment to let one’s freak flag fly. Maybe I’m just an idiot for only suddenly realizing all this, and for only doing so after watching an Asylum movie, but I can’t control when these epiphanies come.

One might reasonably accuse me of being contrarian for declaring that a low budget zombie movie directed by Casper Van Dein is so much better than the big budget Disney movie that inspired it, but if you actually see both films, the contrast is obvious, and I think any fan of cinema not wrapped up in the technical sophistication that only million dollar budgets can bring will agree that on the level of story and character (the true marks of a good film), Sleeping Beauty is the clear winner here. It starts off a bit slow, but once we get to the castle and the monsters come out of the woodwork, it builds and builds into a respectably entertaining horror fantasy flick that may not stack up to the best of that genre, but is certainly better than most of the other knee jerk reviews are likely going to say it is. This is the movie I wanted Maleficent to be, and an example of the kind of stupid fun experience that only the freedom of low budgets and lower expectations can provide. Asylum fantasy films tend to lag in relation to their sci-fi action counterparts, but if they keep making them like this, I’ll be satisfied.

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