Maleficent (2014) Film Review, a movie directed by Robert Stromberg, and starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham, Hanna New, Isobelle Molloy, Ella Purnell, Jackson Bews.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s hard imagine how Disney could have screwed this up. Since her debut fifty-five years ago in Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has yet to be topped as the most regal and fearsome animated Disney villain. Sure, Cruella De Vil was a guilty pleasure; Ursula cast a spell on us; and Lady Tremaine just pissed us right off; but none has ever measured up to the sheer stature, presence, and measured menace of Maleficent. Her towering but slender silhouette was – no, still is – enough to make some of us wet our pants. How could Disney go wrong with this $200 million idea?
Let’s just call this film what it is – a major disappointment – because nearly everything that audiences love to hate about the icon is missing from this creatively impressive but substantively shallow re-working of the beloved Disney tale. For starters, it’s more fairies than dragons. Anyone naive enough to believe Disney’s marketing strategy – that the film showcases an especially cruel and showy performance of America’s favorite Disney villain by one of America’s most respected actresses (who also happens to be picture-perfect for the role) – need look no further than the film’s PG rating. This is, indeed, a children’s film, a confusing approach seeing as how generations of children have been viewing this film for, I don’t know, fifty-five years now and the film is attracting attention from the youngest to the oldest among us.
This approach effectively neuters Maleficent – save for a key scene when she casts her spell on the princess Aurora – a dumbfounding decision. In many scenes, Maleficent simply stands there staring at the happenings around her without saying a word. We get it – she’s Maleficent, and her mere presence ought to scare the hell out of us. When she’s surrounded by tree people, dazzling fairies, and various creatures that resemble Dobby from the Harry Potter films, and not cutting them with her words or her “sword”, then she’s not so frightening anymore. Her surmising every scene with a tilt of the head and an arch of the eyebrow disarm her of her real weapon: her wicked wit. The original Maleficent was so in control, so assured, so clever with her tongue. One wonders where all the one-liners went missing this second time around.
The film also feels incredibly shallow, both in its treatment of the characters and in its apparent attitude that expensive, all-encompassing CGI is enough to tell a story. This is the most expensive film ever to be entrusted to a first-time director (Robert Stromberg), a former Oscar-winning production designer who’s worked on other similarly-shallow re-envisionings (2010’s Alice in Wonderland and last year’s Oz the Great and Powerful).Stromberg’s talent for production design is clearly evident, but instead of using it to augment the story he uses it to distract from the wandering script by Disney veteran Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King). Character development is attempted, but it’s of the “faux” variety and feels like it was included merely as an obligatory effort. Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites), for example – a main character in the 1959 film – is given short shrift with less than five minutes of screen time. Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan, too, feels one-note and could have used some fleshing-out.
It must be said that the script is the main problem with the film; it lacks trust in the characters and wholly misses the point: we want to see Maleficent’s evil manifest itself in the most chilling ways possible, not a 97-minute witness-stand defense on why she’s justified. After all, do we really care?
…and about that defense. It won’t register with the youngsters because it’s just subtle enough, but Stefan’s betrayal of Maleficent unfortunately resembles date-rape, and though she is never sexually violated his offense provokes those same angry and painful emotions. One cannot miss the smile-inducing symbolism on display as Maleficent reclaims her dignity and power by fetching a stick and turning it into a large staff to wield against those who would hurt her – her phallic weapon of choice in what she perceives to be a man’s world.
As expected, Angelina Jolie delivers a fantastic performance. There’s no doubt she could have really soared to new heights had the script given her more scenery to chew on. She thankfully avoids a campy characterization, a nail in the coffin for roles like this. The rest of the cast, however, isn’t given much to work with – not even princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), who is miscast. The ending contains a few twists that put it at odds with the original film, but they’re fun even if they are predictable. The film also feels too short, but, again, the film is aimed at the wrong demographic.
Disney lost a huge opportunity here. It makes me wonder if it would have been better for the company to produce a straight remake of Sleeping Beauty that preserved Maleficent’s menace; Angelina Jolie likely could have scored awards season attention in that scenario. Hopefully, next year’s Cinderella remake will avoid the mistakes on display here, but don’t hold your breath.
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