Film Review – Maleficent
Maleficent (2014) is a modern retelling of the Sleeping Beauty (1959) story, this time from the vantage point of the villain. Given that Maleficent is arguably the biggest Disney villain in their stable, it’s a shame the studio featured her in a less than deserving film. Like every other modern “update” of classic fairytales, this one attempts to be darker and less cookie cutter than what Disney is known for. They have a lot to work on before they can reshape their identity. This is a picture with characters lacking strong motivations, existing in a universe that is as phony looking as an animated film. Above all else – being targeted to people of all ages – the biggest issue is it just wasn’t very fun.
One thing that works is the casting of the titular role. As Maleficent, Angelina Jolie nails the look, sound, and gestures perfectly. From her arching horns and jagged cheekbones, Jolie draws our curiosity while also being vastly intimidating with her power. Jolie is at her best when Maleficent is at her worst, sneering and laughing with vicious intent. It’s no wonder the scenes where Maleficent is at her most dangerous would be featured in the trailers, that is where Jolie is at her dynamic best.
Sadly, the narrative sidesteps all that to build the character not as a villain, but as a victim of heartbreak. This is where the problems begin. We learn that Maleficent is a fairy living in The Moors, a magical place separated from the land of humans. Her power lies in her wings, which we see her using right at the outset. As a youngster, she befriended a young boy named Stefan. That friendship soon blossomed into love, or so she thought. Narration tells us that all humans are selfish, greedy beings. Once reunited as adults, Maleficent gets tricked by Stefan (the older version played by Sharlto Copley), who cuts her wings as proof of his worthiness to become the next king.
This is a major violation to Maleficent, and the underlining sexual allegories it hints toward are hard to miss. How this situation is handled is critical to the film’s success, but director Robert Stromberg (and screenwriter Linda Woolverton) don’t treat it with a deft enough hand. Traumatized and enraged, Maleficent becomes the evil being we all know, and in an act of rage, takes her revenge by placing her famous spell on Stefan’s daughter – the Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) – cursing her to a sleep-like death on her 16th birthday.
How Maleficent’s character develops is befuddling. She’s supposed to be represented in this sympathetic light, but how are we supposed to come to grips with that if she takes her revenge out on an innocent child? How are supposed to root for her if she essentially places a death curse – not on the man who physically and mentally damaged her – but on his young daughter? Stefan is a brute and a monster (that is all there is to him), but Maleficent turns her focus away from him. With all her power, she could have easily disposed of the bastard and be done with it.
But no, the plot downshifts to a crawl in the second half, where we are subjected to a teenage Aurora coming upon Maleficent, and are forced to witness their growing bond together. In an effort to protect the princess, Stefan enlists the help of three pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) to watch over her. The pixies’ ineptness comes immediately; too engaged arguing with each other to actually take care of Aurora. This allows her to wonder off and meet Maleficent. Through their interaction, Maleficent learns that (surprise!) Aurora is actually a nice and lovely girl, undeserving of the curse she unknowingly has. Why couldn’t Maleficent have seen this from the start?
Nearly every character shown is either dim-witted or just plain nasty. As Aurora, Elle Fanning’s only purpose is to smile. She plays no bigger part to the story, other than as a pawn between Maleficent and Stefan. Sam Riley appears as Diaval, a crow who Maleficent sometimes transforms into a man. As a character, Diaval is nothing but a servant to Maleficent, abiding to all her orders only because he’s written to be that way. No character truly has a strong foundation for us to understand their actions. They’re either painted in a single dimension, or with contradictory traits too far apart to be believable.
This is Stromberg’s first outing as a director, after years of work in visual effects. He uses that expertise too far in rendering this world, where everything looks computer generated, and magical creatures are made up of spare parts from other, better fantasy films. Disney did a better job last year of flipping classical fairytale tropes on their head with Frozen (2013). Watch that instead, even if you already have. I can see the intent of Maleficent, but the execution betrayed the effort.