Thursday, January 8, 2015

Project Terrible: Sleeping Beauty (2014)

Welcome back to Project Terrible, everyone. Al's first pick for me this round is Sleeping Beauty. Can't imagine why he thinks an old Disney film is so terrible, but...


Yep, it's another Asylum effort, this one timed not-so-subtly close to the release of Maleficent.

You're pretty familiar with the general idea by now, I'd imagine. King ticks off evil fairy queen, evil fairy queen curses newborn girl, girl grows up and pricks her finger, girl falls asleep, prince kisses girl, girl wakes up, happily ever after, yadayadayada.

The Asylum does take this story in a more action-centric direction, but the general outline is pretty similar to every version before. In this version, King David (presumably not the Biblical one) and Queen Violet have a daughter named Dawn. All the fairies of the kingdom are invited, and they come to give the daughter their blessings...except for the fairy Queen Tambria, who wasn't invited and so comes to curse the girl to death in revenge. (There's also an insufficiently explored matter of her being the queen of a destroyed kingdom and David having given her land to live on that...she didn't like or something, I guess...)

The Asylum sure does love those LotR-style sweeping overland shots in their fantasy (or vaguely prehistoric) films.
It's actually a little unclear if Tambria or the others are supposed to be fairies, it should be noted. They're referred to at the very start of the film as fairies, but in every other scene they're called queens or enchantresses. You certainly could be both, but it's a little odd the film drops the fairy label so quickly.

Check it out! We can throw hadokens!
In any case, another fairy balances out the curse by setting its phasers to stun instead of kill. One thing leads to another, Tambria murders some fairies (no, really), and ultimately we get the usual sleeping princess story. Our heroes this time are a bit different, though...we get spoiled rotten prince Jayson and his whipping boy (no, really) Barrow, along with a priest and a few knights.

Barrow, mistreated by the prince, is quite a bit better than him in basically every way, and when he happens on a map leading to the Sleeping Beauty's kingdom, Jayson steals it from him and proclaims that he'll take the kingdom for himself (dear old dad recognizes his son isn't likely to rule well)...and that Barrow's coming with. And so, the quest is set.

Sleeping Beauty is, astonishingly, not actually all that bad. The Asylum seems to have been trying fairly hard this time, actually. What we get here is a fairly basic and somewhat overlong but still decent attempt at this classic story. There are problems, but they aren't nearly as all-encompassing as in many Asylum films.

So let's start with the good. First off, the location. Weird place to start, I know, but the Asylum actually did a pretty good job with it this time. The castle looks interesting and foreboding, and generally serves very nicely throughout the course of the film. Good thing, as I imagine I'll now see it in like eighty other Asylum films, but hey.

The acting isn't bad, either. Everyone does a respectable job. Finn Jones is quite good as Barrow and plays a good classic fairy tale "diamond in the rough" kind of hero. Edward French's Jayson is an appropriate mix of coward and arrogant jerk, and though the actors playing the knights seem somewhat limited, they are playing roles quite suited to them, so it doesn't end up hurting the film. There are a couple slightly awkward performances. Maya van Dien as Newt, a young girl the group meets in the castle who helps them find their way, has a little bit too much "reciting lines" in her performance rather than "being the character," but just enough to notice...and hey, she's only 13 or so. It's not a bad performance at all, and she seems like she can improve. Olivia d'Abo's Tambria is a little too overtly MWAHAHAHAHA evil, but she's acceptable.

As a side note, though, Casper van Dien directed this thing and plays King David, and there are three van Dien girls acting in it: Grace van Dien as Dawn, Maya van Dien as Newt, Celeste van Dien as Serene, I don't remember Serene's part...might have been one of the girls in the second blessings sequence near the end? But Grace and Maya do pretty well for themselves. (Grace has a short role given she'll spend most of the movie unconscious, but she's natural in the few scenes she actually gets.)

I also have to say that the Asylum has managed action much, much better in this film than in almost any other Asylum film I've seen. They actually seem to have mostly plotted out their action sequences and maybe even rehearsed them a few times this time! None of it is going to stand up to a Hollywood action films or things like Peter Jackson's various Tolkien films, but most of it feels like you can take it seriously--and, importantly, it feels like the actors take it seriously. That really helps.

In more of a middle ground, we have the special effects. The Asylum does a better job this time than...pretty much ever, but still isn't quite getting things right. Their models look pretty good, which isn't that unusual for them, but they've blended them a bit better with the action in general (notably, they appear to have figured out that it's easier to blend CGI in with live actors if you set the scene at night). It still isn't great, but it's better. I also really appreciate that in fights with the CGI monsters, it appears that actors (mostly) know where the monster they are fighting is this time. There are still a few "classic" Asylum "stab at the screen and then we'll show you hit" bits, but there are also honest-to-goodness attacks and blocks, shown together on the same screen, which look right for once. It sounds minor, but this is something new for the Asylum--they haven't managed anything this well in the past. If they can continue down this road their CGI monsters might actually be a benefit to their films rather than a detriment!

The magic effects are pretty awful, though. Fortunately they don't get used all that often.

I really do want to emphasize that's it's quite clear that the folks involved in this film were trying hard to make a decent movie. There are definite signs of that effort and I do want to congratulate them for it. I've seen a small but notable trend towards higher quality in Asylum films released lately, and even if they still tend towards unintentional comedy, it's nice to see some improvement. I know it seems like reviewers pick apart movies a lot on sites like this, but I don't hate the Asylum...I really do want to turn on an Asylum film sometime and end up saying, "You know, that was good."

With that said, I'm not ready to say that quite yet, and there are a few major reasons why.

First off, I mentioned that the acting is good, and it is, but the characters themselves are nothing to write home about. They're quite one-dimensional, and that dimension is generally not all that pleasant. Sleeping Beauty actually has some major things in common with slasher flicks, and unfortunately one of those things is that a lot of very unlikeable people are trapped together in a dangerous situation. Barrow and Newt are the only characters that stay in the film for a long time that I could root for.

Other than them, we had Jayson--an utter dick--and his knights. The knights are portrayed pretty much just as followers--tough guys, but followers. There are some attempts at comedy with two of them, but it really just ends up making them look cowardly, which takes away their one redeeming trait. (The leader remains brave throughout the film, though, so that helps.) They really aren't good guys. Jayson and the knights are all cruel to Barrow to a degree that they might as well outright be the villains of the movie--they even use him as bait and have him go ahead in case there are deathtraps more than once. It's clear they regard him as utterly expendable and it's questionable if they even think of him as human.

Now, here's why this is a problem. The film spends a lot of time putting these characters in trouble, and while that's all well and good when Barrow is in trouble too, since threats to him generate suspense, it isn't good when Jayson or a knight are threatened alone. I literally couldn't care less if they lived or died, so there's no suspense there. This gets worse when a knight is killed or Jayson is taken captive and the film actually tries to evoke some sort of pity or worry...that sort of thing utterly fails because I hate the jerks. It's the same problem I have with a lot of slasher flicks...if the group is made up almost entirely of unrepentant, horrible people, I have no interest in whether they live or die...therefore, large chunks of the movie end up pretty boring to me.

It gets even worse still when they try a late-film turnaround for Jayson...with next to no buildup, he suddenly decides to give Barrow back his stolen birthright (Barrow's also a prince, in a twist you can see coming before the movie starts) and sacrifice himself to try to save Dawn. There really isn't any build to this. He's with Barrow and the others, acting like an utter jerk and totally willing to get Barrow killed, then he gets captured, he still talks up wanting to rule with Tambria, and then he's led away by her and told he'll have to kill his friends. And then it turns out that despite being a psychopathic sadist and heartless bastard for the entire movie, his seeming agreement was just a trick so he could find Dawn and save her and he was never going to kill any of them.

Yeah, right. Look, it's one thing to have him say those things just to try to save himself from an angry Barrow who beat him in a swordfight, but it's quite another to have him actually mean them with absolutely no build to it!

There's a better transition with the knight captain, who is consistent in that he respects strength and ability--so he comes to accept Barrow as he sees that the "whipping boy" is actually very capable. It still doesn't feel quite natural since he spent most of the film before that being totally willing to sacrifice Barrow whenever they needed to, but at least it calls out part of his character that already existed.

Finally, as much as I'll compliment the Asylum's improvement on action...there's far too much of it in this film. Quite simply, this film is far too long for its story content. Once the group reaches the castle, it pretty much becomes a sequence of action/suspense scenes of varying quality, with little to no actual story beyond "get to the next point." It's like if you tried to make a movie of The Legend of Zelda that was entirely based around Link going through one dungeon--excluding anything but "oh, here's an obstacle, how do I get around it" or "oh, there's a monster, how do I kill it?"

Which is probably what would happen if someone tried to make The Legend of Zelda into a film, which is why I'm hoping that never happens. I already saw part of my childhood die with the Super Mario Bros. movie.

Anyway, the point is that this could have used either some additional plot twists/complications, or a serious trimming. If they had taken the opportunity to show Prince Jayson making a slow change over the course of the scenes, they'd all be worthwhile, no problem...but they didn't, so they aren't.

Otherwise, this isn't that bad of a film. I'm not going to discuss the ending much, other than to say that it involves both massive heroic stupidity and a fairly decent little heroic plan...somehow right after each other. It's reasonably satisfying, but does have a kind of dumb little "and they lived happily ever after...or did they?" coda.

A couple more notes before I sum it up on two scenes that struck me as particularly odd:

First off, there's the fulfillment of the curse. A lot of Sleeping Beauty interpretations don't quite get the whole "inevitability of a curse" thing right, instead having the evil fairy actually make the curse happen. Look, here's the thing: a good curse in a fairy tale or legend is fulfilled by accident. It's unavoidable. It's Oedipus being sent away so he won't kill his father, only to grow up and meet his father, unknown, along the road and kill him when they argue with each other. The original Sleeping Beauty tale actually does this pretty well: the princess happens upon an old woman spinning with a spindle and asks to try it herself, and pricks herself in the process. It's no one's plan--no fairy trick to make it happen. (It's still a bit odd since the king banned all forms of spinning, but hey, how many Americans always obey the speed limit?) Anyway, the point is that a curse is fate. It may be set by another, but it basically fulfills itself, in a way that seems natural.

Even Disney's original Sleeping Beauty gets this wrong, as Maleficent lures the princess into pricking her finger on an enchanted spinning wheel--that is, she works to complete her curse rather than the curse just taking effect. But this version of the tale goes absolutely nuts with the amount of work Tambria puts into making something that's supposed to be inevitable happen. Here's how it goes:

It's the princess' sixteenth birthday, so the royal family hold a party and let her out of her protective tower. At midnight, she's dancing with a boy in the crowd and he tells her he has a present for her. So she follows him, and he gives her a present, which she likes so much she must know how it was made. So he whips out a spindle right there. And basically taunts her into touching it, whereupon she pricks herself. And of course the boy is the evil fairy/enchantress/queen in disguise.

News flash, folks: if you have to engineer the event happening yourself, your curse is not exactly inevitable. For crap's sake, she might as well have just taken the thing out and stabbed the princess.

"But I don't want to touch it! It looks sharp!"
"Oh, whole evil plan is screwed!"
Furthermore, those who were paying close attention may have noticed that by the time this happens, the princess' sixteenth birthday has actually passed. But you see, that's okay, because it wasn't actually her sixteenth birthday. Apparently the evil fairy could BEND TIME AND SPACE to make them hold the party a few days shy of her sixteenth birthday totally couldn't have taken the spindle out before midnight or anything. Why was that necessary?

One other kind of weird scene...Barrow, as I mentioned, is a whipping boy. I mean that literally. You see, a prince couldn't be whipped by just anyone (Divine Right of Kings and all that), so since dear old dad wasn't usually available to punish him (being busy with running the kingdom and all), the solution was obvious: bring in another kid so the prince could make friends with him, and then if the prince wasn't doing things correctly, that kid could be whipped instead. In theory, since the prince was good buddies with him, the prince would really feel bad and would do better in the future. (Note that the whipping boy was usually actually also a noble, and shared in a lot of the benefits of royalty too.)

Apparently this actually worked in a lot of cases since princes didn't actually have many friends so they valued the ones they did have. I still don't recommend trying it, though.

Anyway, Barrow is a whipping boy for Jayson, so anytime Jayson does wrong Barrow takes his punishment. Fine. What gets rather weird is that early in the film, when this comes up and Barrow is taking a punishment for Jayson, the film emphasizes how evil Jayson is (remember, the same guy they're going to have do a complete turnaround down the line) by having him think Barrow's not being hit hard enough and go hit the guy himself. So...yeah. The prince delivers his own punishment to the guy meant to take his punishment for him,'s a really weird form of self-flagellation, I guess. that sadism or masochism? I can't decide.

Extremely lengthy sidebar done and dusted, the point is that it's a strange scene and just the first of many examples of Jayson being an utter irredeemable jerk...despite the fact that the film gives him a redemption moment out of nowhere.

Ah, well.

Sleeping Beauty is actually a fairly decent film. It has some major flaws, but it's not a bad watch overall. The plot is too thin and stretched quite a bit, the effects are sometimes cheesy, and the characters really need some work...but the film still does an adequate job of presenting the story and getting it from beat to beat. The Asylum has done a better job with this than pretty much any other film of theirs that I've seen, and I'm hopeful that this is a sign they're trying to improve. Then again...they did release Asian Schoolgirls, so I probably shouldn't hold my breath.

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