Maleficent Flawed but Still Entertaining.
By Kristin Battestella
Wonder gal Angelina Jolie returned to cinema screens for the 2014 Disney hit Maleficent. Though marred in its mix of youth marketing and bleak fantasy, the tale here remains a charming good time.
Once a happy fairy protector of The Moors, the angry Maleficent (Jolie) threatens the nearby kingdom of former friend King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and curses his newborn daughter to eternal sleep by pricking her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday. Raised in seclusion by the bumbling fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville), the Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) grows curious about The Moors and soon strikes up an unusual friendship with Maleficent – who Aurora views as her fairy godmother. Does Maleficent want to revoke her curse upon the princess? Can she or will the battle with King Stefan destroy his kingdom and The Moors?
Though most of the previews spent their time showing Maleficent’s live action recreation of Disney’s 1959 cartoon classic, the first half hour here is new back story with a pleasing mythos of fairies living in The Moors beside the real world, iron’s fairy burning properties, and star crossed romance between humans and magical folk. As expected, Maleficent starts out juvenile with the introduction of the titular young fairy but grows up quickly thanks to some scary tree monsters. Several elements here are really not for kids – especially a very upsetting and symbolic wing cutting that will be tough for some young ones to comprehend. The absent narrator does create a pleasant story telling aspect, but seemingly critical drama concerning the ambitious King Stefan is merely told in this shoehorned 90 minutes. Debut director Robert Stromberg (designer for Avatar and Oz the Great and Powerful) is obviously a visualist and not quite a storyteller, for the expected curse comes too soon in a film that’s supposed to be about Maleficent and not Aurora – she knows were the baby is all along, but goes back and forth in her vengeance in haphazard, rewritten, and excised plot from longtime Disney writer Linda Woolverton (The Lion King).
Purely whimsical fairy fan service moments trump the potential for serious character development, and Maleficent never decides if it’s the grim story behind Sleeping Beauty or an excuse for a live action spectacle. Maleficent laughs and plays tricks one moment before waging fiery, thorny war the next, unevenly mashing the two themes while speedy soap opera rapid aging syndrome scenes gloss over how a lot of elements don’t make much sense. Who and where traversings are unclear as the narration comes and goes and fresh motifs or any and all of Maleficent’s cool powers are forgotten or contrived as needed. Maybe kids can enjoy the pointless mystical special effects stringing Maleficent together, but this seemingly abridged retelling should have chosen to be all youth merriment or total sentimental sophistication. There are some fine visuals and charming characters here, but Disney settled for mass delight instead of a truly complete fairy tale. With this kind of pedigree, performance, and talent, it’s not unreasonable for mature audiences to expect a story well told.
Fortunately, Maleficent is an alluring Vader that we love to hate, hate to love, and love to see come round good again, and Oscar winner Angelina Jolie’s (Girl, Interrupted) fun performance anchors the picture and forgives any faulty foundations. Although we never get an explanation of how her name could still be Maleficent even when she was a good and happy fairy child, a jilting and betrayal makes this revised fairy protector immediately sympathetic rather than villainous. The off screen clipping of her wings is certainly traumatizing and symbolic in many ways with well done strength and weakness from Jolie. The simple but touching creation of her staff and her isolated, destroyed abode provide menace whilst hiding her pain. Though bemusing, the superb transformation of Sam Riley (Brighton Rock) as her crow Diaval also provides companionship and an emotional sounding board. Maleficent has always been my favorite Disney villain, for she neither sings nor plays at humor and stupidity. Maybe she overreacts to not getting an invitation in the cartoon edition, but in Maleficent, we know the horrible reason why. It’s simply gleeful to see Jolie recite the same lines from the original with live action perfection and chew on the conflicting possibilities– her entrances, dark costuming, and chiseled design are simply delish. Yes, the uneven writing and direction hampers what should have been a steady hour and a half of character journey. Some developments were clearly not so well though out beyond the Disney textbook happy. The back and forth change of heart from scene to scene cuts the enraged layers off at the knees and at times makes Maleficent feel like a cliché woman scorned. Why does this skilled trickster needlessly bide her time and wage war while being charmed by a child? Maleficent isn’t all bad or totally pure yet most of the frightful, grey complexity feels left on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, Jolie captures both her previously macabre style and good-hearted maternal ways as Maleficent. If she truly is exiting her acting career, Maleficent sends her out on a show stopping high note.
Though largely pleasant in her innocence as Aurora, Elle Fanning (We Bought a Zoo) is also slightly annoying in her bright and bushy excitement over her so-called fairy godmother Maleficent. Due to the piecemeal dialogue, magical narration, and time jumps snippets, we don’t get a chance to fully know Aurora, and no real motivations seems to dictate her hanging with Maleficent and the whole fairy gang. The audience can’t appreciate her parental revelation or cursly betrayals because the haste to the spinning wheel never gives us time to digest her side of the tale. Granted, Maleficent is about Maleficent, but the pricking of the finger was more suspenseful and dramatic in the 1959 animation and Aurora has very little weight as a catalyst supporting part. The writers feel stuck with the character and she isn’t treated as anything that special – even to Maleficent half of the time. Is she the daughter that Maleficent should have had with King Stefan? Groundbreaking potential here is either vaguely tacked on or missed completely – again thanks to the over reliance on slow motion pans, zooms, and battles over conversation.
Wonderfully absentminded fairies turned clueless old ladies Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter), Juno Temple (Atonement), and Lesley Manville (Another Year) should have been the only amusing, whimsical, comedy relief in Maleficent. Unfortunately, it feels like Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle are barely there, shoehorned in to be upset about Aurora eventually leaving or unhappy at their sacrificing in a forested hovel as needed. Outside of a few brief scenes, we never really see either displeasure – Maleficent seems to cut away almost as if fanciful song and dance numbers have been excised after the fact. A film named after the misunderstood anti-hero should not feel like it is about to burst into song. Likewise, further dimension from Sharlto Copley (District 9) as King Stefan seems diminished in the editing room – another opportunity for a superior character reversal wasted in Maleficent. Stefan grows deservedly crazy over his cruel ambitions, and without Disney at the helm, this corrupt king could have been shaped into a superb villain equal to Maleficent in full on, historical creepy fashion ala Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Adding to the male inferiority is Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt) as a rather dorky and I dare say unnecessary Prince Philip. Sam Riley’s Diaval ingenius should have been fully realized instead, but most of the support seems to be written as if serviceable would suffice. Maleficent is without a doubt Jolie’s vehicle to carry, but with the right polish, the ready and waiting ensemble could have done much more to define the film.
Maleficent is of course overly steeped in computer imagery. It’s supposed to look awe inspiring – and some of the world is unique to the Sleeping Beauty designs – but the majority of the visual effects look like every other standard CGI treatment we now all but continuously see in most blockbusters. Magic trees defending against anonymous knight armies make for tough to see blurry action and a lot of in your face messy. Thankfully, picturesque flying scenery, mystical smoke, magic thorns, and flame effects accent the naturally designed Moors and medieval castle works. It’s a little frustrating that even would be plain scenes of nothing more than people talking have an obvious fantasy patina and airbrushed saturation to them, but princessy costumes and hennins make for more tangible, recognizable storybook aspects alongside golden cottages and winterscapes. The green glow of Maleficent’s powers also illume Jolie’s face in several scenes and create a beautiful and intimidating harkening to the cartoon vintage. If nothing else, Maleficent is a colorful picture that still has a cool dragon and a superb update of “Once Upon a Dream” from Lana Del Rey. However, I do wish the movie had used the new rendition’s sense of stalker brood as a Tchaikovsky anchor or humming familiarity to unify the picture instead of just sticking the single over the end credits.
Naturally, the rental blu-ray of Maleficent is ridiculously laden with Disney in your face complete with internationally designed menus for mass distribution and abundant previews of every Disney property imaginable. What the heck will Disney call their releases once Diamond and Platinum are insufficient? Fortunately, the features seem to be intact with almost a half hour of behind the scenes and a handful of deleted scenes that should have remained within Maleficent to clarify character circumstances. Today, however, this small sampling of add ons doesn’t feel like enough, and ironically, Maleficent appears to have clipped its own wings in telling a fully realized tale from the villainous side in favor of the tried and true Disney quest for maximum money making mainstream safety. Did it succeed in rolling in global dough? Of course. Maleficent didn’t have to be super dark and scary, but it should have been more defined in what it wanted to do – haters may be scratching their heads over some of the direct to video caliber prequel haphazards here. I may be biased as it is my favorite and Maleficent is fun and fanciful with laughing moments for the kids and adult tolerability – but ultimately, the 1959 classic feels like a more satisfying tale. Will there be a two hour Director’s Cut of Maleficent any time soon?
There are some scares and violence in Maleficent that might upset little ones, but I don’t think it is worthy of the “dark fantasy” label it has received. Intriguing character strides and mythos changes remain too sunshiny, but fans of the cast, fantasy audiences, and fanciful ladies of all ages can overlook the uneven writing and directing flaws thanks to good to be bad twists and delightful performances.