Maleficent (2014) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton (based on the screenplay for Sleeping Beauty by Erdman Penner)
Review published May 30, 2014
Disney reimagines their 1959 movie, Sleeping Beauty, with Maleficent, a smart idea, feebly executed by first-time feature-film helmer Robert Stromberg, who is mostly known for his work as a veteran visual effects designer. The worst part of his approach Maleficent is what Stromberg does best, which is the look of it, chock full of CGI effects and green-screen fantasy landscapes, but vastly overdone and unrealistic even for a depiction of a realm of complete fantasy. For a fantasy film trying to instill viewers with a sense of awe and wonder at all of the fantastical creatures and environs, it's anything but appealing, which makes it a bit of a bust, as the story isn't sufficient enough on its own to maintain interest.
Maleficent is perfectly cast with Angelina Jolie (The Tourist, Wanted) in the titular role, which starts off in her early years as a very powerful winged fairy living in the Moors, a wondrous forest region full of eerie, magical creatures. All is well for the young sorceress, especially when she is visited by Stefan (Copley, Oldboy), a human prince with whom she falls in love. However, Stefan's father, King Henry (Cranham, The Legend of Hercules), doesn't like these magical creatures and wants to usurp their land, which means he has to snuff out Maleficent, who is the magical forest's main protector. She's more than capable of handling anything the King might dish out, but what she doesn't expect is that Stefan, now grown up, would betray her in a most ruthless manner, amputating her precious wings to try to pass of proof of death.
When Stefan becomes King and has a daughter of his own, a vengeful Maleficent arrives to enact a curse upon the newborn that she would fall under an eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday. The young baby grows up to be a teenager, Princess Aurora (Fanning, Benjamin Button), raised by three not-too-bright fairies out in a remote cottage, where she falls under the watchful eye of Maleficent.
Without Jolie's performance to have the semblance of an anchor to it, Maleficent could have easily wound up as one of the worst live-action Disney releases in many years, instead just another mediocre one. And not only is it poorly plotted and full of egregiously annoying supporting characters, but it just looks ugly. Not even Jolie, who is already a bit of a freak of nature in terms of her stunning looks, can't escape the artifice of the film's icky visual aesthetic, as she is given some very pronounced, angular cheekbones that make her seem otherworldly.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sharlto Copley is downright terrible as the scheming King Stefan, too murderously shrill and intense for a family-friendly Disney film, and makes for a less-than-formidable foil (or a worthy romantic interest, for that matter) for the eternally beguiling Maleficent. That darkness is a real problem with the film, which employs an approach to be lightly comedic and repugnantly violent in a way that is jarring in its tonal shifts, to the point that both are rendered ineffective -- it's neither fun nor thrilling once things get ugly.
Maleficent has a nifty premise, which is to revise the classic "Sleeping Beauty" from the perspective of the not-evil-just-misunderstood baddie, but too many similarities to recent twists on the genre, most notably in Despicable Me and Frozen, not to mention the Broadway hit "Wicked", immediately take away the bulk of that novelty. All of these films are about drawing sympathy from traditionally evil characters, making them misunderstood victims of circumstance. What was once a groundbreaking attempt to break from tradition has now become a tradition in itself, leaving us little to keep us vested except to count how many ways a film like Maleficent can remind us of other successful films we view with much more fondness.
At only 97 minutes, at least we're spared the kind of lengthy opus certainly worthy of a time-honored tale, though one could rightfully state that part of the problem with the narrative comes from its lack of proper explanation for why everyone does what they do (why does Maleficent choose a spinning wheel and its needle of significance as the object to put Aurora to perpetual slumber, for instance?), though the same could also be said about the source material. For a film that extols the virtues of magic in our world, with the exception of the mesmerizing Jolie, it's far too mundane to cast any sort of lasting spell on its intended audience.
©2014 Vince Leo