Film Review: ‘Maleficent’

Maleficent

This visually arresting fairy tale fails to offer a satisfying alternate history on 'Sleeping Beauty.'

Now almost midway through the year, 2014 seems unlikely to produce many more visually arresting, brilliantly designed, stoned-college-kid-friendly pieces of eye candy than Disney’s “Maleficent.” As for its revisionist take on the travails of the iconic “Sleeping Beauty” villainess, however, it falls far short of something an imaginative fan-fiction scribe, let alone obvious role models John Gardner or Gregory Maguire, might have crafted from the material. Uncertain of tone, and bearing visible scarring from what one imagines were multiple rewrites, the film fails to probe the psychology of its subject or set up a satisfying alternate history, but it sure is nice to look at for 97 minutes. Boasting an impressive and impeccably costumed Angelina Jolie in the title role, it ought to prove a solid global moneymaker and merchandise-minter for the Mouse House. 

Of the four fractured fairy tales produced by Joe Roth (“Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Snow White and the Huntsman”), “Maleficent” is the one that hews closest to its source material, and it’s not always clear whether this helps or hinders. Directed by first-time helmer Robert Stromberg from a script credited to “Beauty and the Beast” scribe Linda Woolverton, the film has a clever enough big-picture take on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale, yet it sputters and snags as it tries construct a coherent emotional arc, and its reference points from the 1959 animated original feel more dutiful than inspired.

Opening with storybook-themed voiceover narration, “Maleficent” sketches a realm of two rival kingdoms – not Stefan’s and Hubert’s, but rather the world of humans and the outlying moors, which are home to fairies, trolls and imposing wickermen. Darting around the moors like a sort of saucer-eyed Tinkerbell is the winged young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), who strikes up an unlikely friendship, and later romance, with a trespassing human farmhand named Stefan (Michael Higgins).

Alas, their love is not to be, as a poorly explained war breaks out between the two kingdoms years later, and the adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) betrays Maleficent (Jolie) by drugging her and cutting off her wings, all in the name of a job promotion. (To be fair, going from farmboy to king is one hell of a jump up the employment ladder.) Now a woman scorned and shorn, Maleficent fashions a magical staff from a twig, dons a black helmet, and takes memorable revenge on Stefan’s infant daughter, Aurora.

Granted the proper grace notes and breathing room, this sequence of events could have provided more than enough material for a dark stand-alone prequel – indeed, it took George Lucas three full features to complete a very similar character arc for Anakin Skywalker. However, “Maleficent” is only just now getting started, and the next two-thirds of the film see our erstwhile antihero hiding in the bushes outside Aurora’s cabin in the woods, serving as an unlikely “fairy godmother” and rethinking her curse, while Aurora’s bumbling guardians (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple) prove entirely incompetent babysitters.

Already a double Oscar winner for his work as an art director, Stromberg knows how to visualize a scene and exactly where to place the camera, but storytelling requires different muscles, and the film often lurches where it ought to flow, rarely latching onto the proper rhythm. It isn’t until roughly halfway through the film, for example, that Maleficent cracks her first joke, which is so out of character that it initially sounds like a blooper.

While the film avoids the two-hour-plus bloat of “Oz” and “The Huntsman,” this is a story that would actually benefit from some slow-paced indulgence. Or at least, better instincts for where to make cuts. For example, an expensive-looking yet utterly inconsequential battle sequence plopped into the middle of the pic sees Maleficent neutralize a squadron of nameless soldiers with neither motivation nor consequences, but the scenes in which she bonds with the 16-year-old Aurora (Elle Fanning) – ostensibly the most important, emotionally weighty relationship in the film – feel rough and rushed.

While Fanning’s Aurora is relegated to a supporting role (and Brenton Thwaites’ Prince Phillip a glorified cameo) Jolie is perfectly cast in the lead, and does excellent work despite substantial physical constraints. She spends the entire film wearing a prosthetic nose, cheeks, teeth and ears, with moon-sized contact lenses and a bulky set of horns atop her head. (Master makeup magician Rick Baker is in stellar form here.) Her movements are often strictly dictated by how best to frame her silhouette. She has few lines that aren’t delivered as monologue, and her most frequent co-stars are digitally rendered creatures. That she manages to command the screen as well as she does in spite of all this is rather remarkable.

It’s also a performance that begs for flourishes of high camp that the film rarely allows. When Jolie is let loose to really bare her fangs, such as her nearly word-for-word re-creation of Maleficent’s first scene from the Disney original, she strips the paint from the walls. (Her primary deviation from the script here offers a peek at the kind of unhinged delight this story could have been in braver hands, as she forces Stefan to his knees and hisses, “I like you begging; do it again!” like a proper Reeperbahn dominatrix.) Yet one is much more likely to see her wordlessly glowering from behind trees and palace walls, as though just another finely crafted visual effect.

As for the actual effects themselves, the level of craft on display here is exquisite. From the swooping shots around Stefan’s castle to the lava-lamp-like floral arrangements that dot Maleficent’s lair, the film’s armies of art directors, costumers and effects technicians aim for the spectacular with every shot, and nail it with impressive consistency. Musically, James Newton Howard’s sweeping score locates a nice sweet spot somewhere between Erich Korngold and Danny Elfman, and Lana Del Rey’s gothy take on the “Sleeping Beauty” showstopper “Once Upon a Dream” makes for a fitting closer.

Film Review: 'Maleficent'

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Sherman Oaks, May 22, 2014. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Motion Pictures release and presentation of a Roth Films production. Produced by Joe Roth. Executive producers, Angelina Jolie, Michael Vieira, Don Hahn, Palak Patel, Matt Smith, Sarah Bradshaw.

Crew

Directed by Robert Stromberg. Screenplay, Linda Woolverton, based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and “La Belle au bois dormant” by Charles Perrault. Camera (color, 3D), Dean Semler; editors, Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson; music, James Newton Howard; production designers, Gary Freeman, Dylan Cole; costume designer, Anna B. Sheppard; supervising art director, Frank Walsh; sound, Chris Munro; supervising sound editors, Frank Eulner, Tim Nielsen; re-recording mixers, Gary A. Rizzo, David Parker; stereographer, Layne Friedman; senior visual effects supervisor, Carey Villegas; visual effects producer, Barrie Hemsley; assistant director, Richard Whelan; second unit camera, Fraser Taggart; casting, Lucy Bevan.

With

Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Isobelle Molloy, Michael Higgins, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Eleanor Worthington-Cox. Narrated by Janet McTeer

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  1. KaschK says:

    It’s a shame the author misread the caution label on the Adivan bottle and fell asleep in the theater. Missed a great movie.

    One that did a GREAT job of offering an alternative take on Sleeping Beauty and filling in some back story given nobody was gonna sit there for three hours like Titanic while they dove into Maleficent’s super id and showed us every single detail of a story weighted down by so much BS that the kids the story was intended for just get up and walk out parents or no parents, wondering how stupid adults must think they are.

    Kudos to the movie makers for realizing that visuals are important, and not letting us down there, but for keeping the movie STORY DRIVEN and never letting us lose the characters in the visuals. If it weren’t for how story driven Maleficent was, I might be falling into one of those copout purist speeches about how the movie is going to make a lot of money and thus its only real mission is complete.

    Close one. Put a little scare in me for a minute there.

  2. RB says:

    I keep reading reviews that are so concerned with pacing, narrative hiccups, and comparisons to the 1950’s Sleeping Beauty movie. I get that film critics think of themselves as important in terms of keeping the art form of film on its toes, but seriously: This is a Disney Movie. The reason this film so important has nothing to do with the finer points of movie making. It’s a hugely important film because it finally brings forward in a very clear way the challenges woman face daily. If this movie’s story line was written using everyday people, it probably wouldn’t be made. Too intense a look at this ugly truth. It’s a film that is finally, unabashedly, telling the story of how a group of women are impacted by a masculine culture focused on the accumulation of power. One is assaulted, two are abandoned, and three others are pressed into 16 years of service that they hate. You may laugh at this description, but it is a world that global and domestic female movie audiences will find familiar. It’s an extraordinary feeling to see your life and your experience of reality finally acknowledged in a masterful way on screen. And, to boot, you finally come out on top – not because you became a better man then the men (warring and killing), but because you were able to recover your heart despite the horrors around you, even offering peace to your assailant. Yes Angelina was amazing. Yes it’s visually stunning. But that’s not why its an instant classic and is raking in cash all over the world. Women seeing themselves overcome a most brutish cultural context is inspiring. And for women the world over, it is worth seeing again, and again, and again.

  3. Maria says:

    I loved this movie!! I think it has a great moral to boot. That being said, I don’t think this movie is appropriate for children under the age of ten. My sister-in-law and four year old niece went with me and my niece now has “bad dreams” about evil fairies coming to get her. Better wait until the little ones are old enough to understand that its just a movie.

  4. Natalie says:

    I loved this movie and will see it again. It was funny, tender at times, and the performances were wonderful. It was not Sleeping Beauty…go watch the DVD if that’s what you want. THIS story is Maleficent’s and is told as such. Stop overthinking everything and sit back and enjoy.

  5. J.A. says:

    We have watched the movie, Each moviegoers have their own opinion, depend on which side you go for. Other watch for their idol, other watch to ridicule.. Mine is for my idol, as well as to understand Maleficent side…this is one perfect story with a twist that is quite touching. A story of good and a bad you can relay certain plot, interpreted in today’s human weaknesses and capabilities..watch it and you will be amazed the additional details to the original version of Sleeping Beauty..

  6. bartieflores63@yahoo.com says:

    The film had many layers of human emotions . Puppy love , greed ,self pity,revenge,anger , bitterness ,paranoia,obsession ,and most importantly forgiveness .the visual effects awesome Robert Stroberg ‘s directors debut a home run. Dudes a two time Oscar winner .I hope he directs many films to come! So Reviewer who ever you are. Open your mind and go watch the film again.

    • Mo says:

      This film was so poorly directed – no sense of timing, pacing or tone. If you really want to see more films directed by this director, you will probably need to finance them! Plus, changing everything into BIZARRO WORLD (where everything is the opposite) is not a way to win a lot of fans. Why not have Cruella DeVil join PETA? Why not have Jesus be the evil king of hell and have lucifer be the good son of God?

  7. jawan says:

    Cant wait ta see it

  8. Marie says:

    If you’re expecting this film to follow the story like the original film did then you’re going to be disappointed.

  9. Gary Lacey says:

    I was wondering about the Brad Pitt attack by a crasher, if it was a stunt or for real. Well, I’m inclined toward a stunt, I hear the movie needs help.

    • Marie says:

      “I’m inclined toward a stunt,”
      Yea…they paid someone to attack Brad to bring more attention to this movie. Even though this movie already have attention. Have you seen how many views the trailers have on Youtube?
      If you’re going to troll, then you have to try a little harder.

  10. While the film may be less than inspired, the twittersphere is a buzz with anticipation for Angelina in horns. #Maleficent indexes at 73% positive in Twitter. Evil indeed has a beautiful face, just watch those sharp cheekbones.

    http://www.30db.com/opinions/%23Maleficent?startDate=20140130&endDate=20140529

  11. They cut out a chunk of backstory for the character. At one point the film was over 2 hrs. So they cut character development and two great actors in Miranda Richardson and Peter Capaldi who I believe played either her parents or her aunt and uncle.

    • KaschK says:

      And so how long was this kids movie that apparently is too scary for American kids to handle before they reach junior high school supposed to be? Three hours? Four hours? And so when the whining about how the filmmakers “forgot who their audience was” kick in, how long can I slap the whiners before my hands actually turn numb? Three hours? Four hours? Because once the movie goes that long, this is exactly what we’ll hear next. That the filmmakers were self indulgent, took too many liberties to retain the right to call the movie “Maleficent”, abandoned their supposed target audience, yada yada yada so tired of this market and the predictable simpleton dullards that it’s comprised of.

      Idiocracy had it right. Just make a movie with two hours of a naked butt center screen and be done with it.

  12. JM says:

    Why is she called Maleficent if she wasn´t evil when she was younger. This sounds as false as as a nice and young Cruella De Vil working for PETA until a problem made her bitter. But anyway she was called Cruella DEVIL. Don´t they pay people to think in Hollywood?

    • KaschK says:

      Uhh…no. As a matter of fact the don’t pay people to think in Hollywood. They DO pay people to think in Washington however. And you see how that’s worked out. So from where do you derive justification for the lofty settings on your bar?

    • AJ says:

      Oh my goodness, thank you for this. As a life long Maleficent fan, I nearly walked out of the theatre. They transformed her from a sweeping, elegant, powerful villain to a simple, uninteresting fairy who’s only “evil” deed is trying to punish the man who betrayed her. Of course, they kept her name and horns the same, as if that’s supposed to make up for the fact that they’ve stripped Disney’s best villain of all her best, and most interesting, qualities and powers.

  13. Chelsea says:

    I will wait and see what Jeremy Jahns thinks of the movie.

  14. Marie says:

    Hollywood needs to stop making these movies and the gullible public shouldn’t flock en mass to see them! SWATH was awful too. Charles Perrault would be ashamed to see his characters being used like by the Hollywood machine.

  15. Compare this to the brilliantly pitiless portrayal of King Joffrey by Jack Gleeson. Gives you an idea of what a great actor can do when they aren’t overwhelmed by their own huge ego.

  16. Dez Nolan says:

    Again, Hollywood picks visuals > emotional journey. Hey, here’s a thought, maybe in a film with a central female character, try a female director! #RevolutionaryIdeas

  17. ITTTY IT says:

    ‘Pre–dick’d–Abel’ same-same franchise slum slop.

    THOSE in search os something bracing, powerful and relevant
    in the fantasy genre?

    CHECK OUT Disney’s 1940 —–‘PINOCCHIO’.

    It will show you what’s going on.

    It will show you where you are.

  18. Cyndi Quintero says:

    yawn

  19. Blake Davenport says:

    So the connection to the past Disney sleeping beauty is irrelevant? I just don’t get what this writer is saying

    • Luis says:

      I saw this last night and it basically starts off very strong like a tale of its own but in the end it rushes back to attempt and come close to tying up to the original sleeping beauty but with a twist. Its true, Prince Philip’s appearance is a forced glorified cameo.

    • Michael G says:

      The writer is saying the film sucks. But, it’s pretty to look at.

      • bartieflores63@yahoo.com says:

        Lessons of life in this film is my take , like holding a grudge is not worth it .the film a 7 on a scale of 1to 10 go check it out peeps , go with a open mind remember your youth (:

      • Kevin says:

        And the writer is absolutely correct.

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