March 2023

Maleficent (2014)

maleficentDIRECTOR: Robert Stromberg

CAST: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, Brenton Thwaites


Maleficent does for its title character (the villain of Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty) what Wicked did for The Wicked Witch of the West, providing a “re-imagining” in which Maleficent is not a one-dimensional cackling villainess reveling in her own evilness, but a tragic, mistreated anti-heroine.  Actually, Maleficent goes even further than Wicked (arguably too far), playing fast and loose with the Sleeping Beauty story and turning it on its head.  That’s not a problem, but Maleficent has a feel of watered-down, generic fantasy adventure that contains enough visual wonder to entertain children and be tolerable for parents, but like another recent re-imagining of a Disney classic, Snow White and the Huntsmandoesn’t live up to its own potential.

Maleficent gives its title character a sympathetic backstory as a kindly, winged woodland fairy who as a young girl (Isabelle Molloy) befriends and falls in love with a human prince, Stefan (Michael Higgins).  However, as Stefan grows up (into Sharlto Copley), he puts his ambition for the throne ahead of Maleficent and betrays her to gain power, drugging her and cutting off her wings to prove himself worthy.  Devastated by Stefan’s betrayal, Maleficent hardens into a broken, vengeful, twisted shadow of her former self.  When her shapeshifting raven/man-servant Diaval (Sam Riley) informs her that the now King Stefan has produced a daughter, Aurora, Maleficent plots revenge.  After this lengthy backstory, we finally get to what was basically the opening scene of Sleeping Beauty, with Maleficent bursting into the throne room to interrupt the festive celebrations and plant a curse that on her 16th birthday, Aurora will fall into an endless sleep that can only be broken by true love’s kiss.  Stefan sends Aurora into seclusion in the woods in the care of three bumbling fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple), and meanwhile descends into obsessive madness.  But as the years pass, a curious thing happens.  Observing Aurora (Elle Fanning) all along, Maleficent witnesses the girl’s innocence and kindness.  Eventually, they officially meet and form a bond, enough so that Maleficent regrets her actions and tries to revoke the curse, to no avail, leaving Maleficent facing another potential tragedy, this time of her own making.

Maleficent arguably softens Maleficent too much.  While I welcome a three-dimensional, conflicted re-imagining of the character with a tragic backstory making her actions far better-motivated, we only get a tantalizing few minutes of the gleefully cackling villainy that characterized her in 1959.  Angelina Jolie is never more witchy fun than when she’s directly imitating the curse scene from the original classic (the two scenes are nearly identical, right down to Maleficent’s costume, the green light of the curse, and her evil cackle).  The movie doesn’t let her revel in Maleficent’s bitchy side long enough, spending most of the movie as an anti-heroine sometimes verging on outright heroine, with the result that Jolie doesn’t get to go far enough.  Jolie is great fun in the curse scene.  Too bad she doesn’t get to do her uncanny impression of the original Maleficent in more than one scene.  There are lots of nods to the original story–the three bumbling fairies, Maleficent’s crow servant, an appearance by a dragon, the spinning wheel–but also two significant twists.  Here, Maleficent is the wronged party and Sleeping Beauty’s father King Stefan is the villain, or the closest we have to a real one.  Also, there is a young, pretty boy Prince (Brenton Thwaites), who pops up as a seemingly convenient plot device to provide “true love’s kiss”, but the movie to its credit misdirects us and has the Prince end up being a red herring.  We also get some doubtlessly expensive special effects-heavy battle scenes involving armies of men versus giant monsters that rise from the ground, that seem like they wandered in from The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia.

Maleficent‘s biggest problems, besides softening Maleficent to the point of taking away some of the witchy fun, are an overly chatty narration that spells everything out for us in cutesy fashion, and seemingly endless set-up.  Events are whisked through in montages, with the narration filling in the gaps rather than the movie properly developing the characters and their relationships.  It seems to take forever for us to feel like we have gone from prologue to the real story beginning, and even then the narration continues unabated.

Director Robert Stromberg, making his directorial debut, had previously had a lengthy and distinguished career as a visual effects supervisor and production designer for the likes of Scorsese, Cameron, and Spielberg, with his credits including Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and his depiction of the enchanted woodland bears a passing resemblance to Avatar‘s Pandora.  Unsurprisingly given Stromberg’s resume, Maleficent is a good-looking movie with some tasty eye candy, even if the narrative isn’t as epic as some of the visuals (the same could be said of Snow White and the Huntsman).

Angelina Jolie is well-cast as Maleficent.  She looks the part, has a commanding presence, can deliver a great evil cackle, and can be effectively either vulnerable or sinister.  No one else merits much mention.  Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) is adequate playing Aurora as a sweet and innocent ray of sunshine who warms Maleficent’s cold heart, but her part is one-dimensional and generic.  The only character we care about is Maleficent.  Sharlto Copley starts out clean-shaven and looking nothing like Elysium‘s mad dog Agent Kruger, but as the movie goes on, he starts not only looking like him, but acting like him too, chewing scenery in an unintelligible accent.  Partly because his part, like everyone’s except Jolie’s is so under-developed, Copley’s Stefan is a weak and boring villain.  Sam Riley is a run-of-the-mill mildly amusing sidekick, and Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple are sometimes amusing as the three fairies, but their material also sometimes seems like it belongs in another movie.

While it does a few intriguing things with its tweaking of a Disney classic, Maleficent is unlikely to go down as a classic in its own right.  The movie has some striking visuals, and Angelina Jolie is good in the role (and probably could have been a good deal better if she’d been allowed to run wild with it), but the movie itself doesn’t make a lasting impression.

* * 1/2