I have been slightly curious about “Maleficent” since its incarnation. I may not understand the sudden influx to reenact every Disney classic in live-action form, but I understand that these characters sell, so why not cash in? Having Angelina Jolie at the helm playing the title character is defining plus. I think if any actress could successfully bring the character to life, its Jolie. Say what you will about her and her personal life with Brad Pitt, but when Jolie connects with a role, she is genuinely awesome. I won’t say she connects with every single character, but when she does, its real movie magic.
“Maleficent” itself is mixed-bag of tricks. I think out of all the live-action Disney remakes, “Maleficent” had the potential to be the most ambitious. Going into “Maleficent,” I knew that Maleficent would be an anti-hero of sorts, I knew that Princess Aurora’s father would be the villain of sorts and that we would get a completely original retelling of the story. That is exactly what we got, but I was not expecting something so mature. Disney has made big business on selling a brand that is cute and cuddly, but “Maleficent” is a dissenting out of the comfort zone. I like the film’s ambitions; I think more movies that tackle the emotions of different genders should be made, especially with popular icons like Disney characters. This is definitely a movie that speaks directly to women and how the world can hurt them if they are not careful. I think that is an incredibly important message, and I credit Disney for attempting to tell a story in that fashion.
The sad thing is “Maleficent” falls down to the weight of its ambitions. As the film opens there is a long narration about how the world was split between two kingdoms, a human kingdom and a kingdom full of magical creatures. We meet Maleficent (young version played by Ella Purnell) at a young age and she has a run-in with a human named Stefan (young version played by Michael Higgins). While they are wary of each other at first, they eventually become close, and perhaps begin to fall for each other. When they get older, Stefan becomes obsessed with greed and envy, and does not contact Maleficent for some time; all the while Stefan’s king tries to conquer Maleficent’s people. The invasion is unsuccessful and Stefan’s king is severely injured. The bitter king wants Maleficent dead so Stefan goes to the forest to find her. At first he wants to help, but then it becomes clear that he intends to kill her. He instead cuts off her wings, turning her into the evil fairy we all know.
The rest of the film plays out like the Disney version of “I Spit On Your Grave.” Basically, a woman is mistreated by a man, and the woman goes and gets her revenge. (The film even goes out of its way to suggest that Stefan raped Maleficent. Yes, that’s right, rape in a Disney movie.) Like I stated above, I like movies about strong women and I like the idea that a mother can take her daughter to see movies like this then have big, important conversations about it later. But “Maleficent” is completely wrong in execution. It is a movie that has lots of big ideas in its brain, but not a clue in the world on how to articulate them. Perhaps this is why big idea movies are rarely seen in blockbuster format, how to do say something so important in such a grand way?
The film was directed by first-time Robert Stromberg, who worked on visual effects for James Cameron’s “Avatar,” Sam Raimi’s “OZ: The Great and Powerful” and Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland.” If there is one thing that really works for the film, it’s the visual effects. During the opening sequence as we are introduced to the two kingdoms, the visuals look like dreams coming to life. The battle between humans and tree monsters also near the beginning of the film is actually quite cool for a Disney movie. Plus the fairy work on Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville is also quite strong. The problem is that it feels Stromberg got so carried away with the special effects that he forgot to create a strong story, he forgot to give meaning to his film’s big ideas and he just let the thing lay flat. The worst thing I can say about a first-time director is that, had a different director been behind this film, it could have possibly been a triumph. “Maleficent” painfully reeks of that mentality.
I think Jolie does exactly what she was told to do and she does it well. I have a sneaking feeling that she may have been directing herself for more than half of the running time. But I think Jolie does what you’d expect her to do, I think she has some really good moments but those moments don’t add up with such little guidance. Sharlto Copley plays the adult Stefan, and Copley is an actor I have adored for years now. But he never plays anything more than a cartoon character bad guy and a clichéd king. Since Stromberg was so effects-obsessed, he forgot to really manage what Copley and Jolie were trying to do and that’s just too bad. I like Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora and I think Fanning is turning into quite the young actress. Sadly, she isn’t given enough room to really become a character, making the emotional impact of the ending feel phony.
I know “Maleficent” wanting to be something special, something to remember. I can tell that it wanted to be a huge ambitious piece that would define Disney in a brand-new way. This is not the movie they should have made. The effects are gorgeous and every scene is quite luminous, but pretty pictures don’t make a good movie. Not only that, but pretty pictures with somewhat big ideas that are never fully realized doesn’t make a good movie either. I can tell that “Maleficent” wanted to separate itself from the herd, but it comes off failing.
FINAL GRADE: C