“Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep-like death.”
‘Uninspired’ must be the name of the game at Disney these days after manipulating some anticipated and hopeful properties over at Marvel (we’re never going to get over Edgar Wright) just a week before releasing their colossally marketed Maleficent. While our opinions on the backdoor happenings of Ant-Man are for another discussion entirely, Disney themselves have been coming up short with their own self-service properties, and Maleficent is the shortest they’ve come in a long while, even after the saccharine skewering known as Saving Mr. Banks. If all that is left in their creative hub is retelling false backstories about their most treasured productions and warping the perspective found in some of their animated classics, then it’s no wonder that Walt’s conglomerate has scooped up Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm to stand alongside Pixar and spill out profitable and desirable products. Alas, Maleficent, like the Oscar-touted Saving Mr. Banks (though it only received a single nomination), is persistent to acquire stature, unfortunately the newest film was a nine figure expenditure with a huge movie star at the forefront and an inexperienced director trying to make one of the Disney princess canon’s duller stories relevant again. Saving Mr. Banks had few merits, but at least it wasn’t the worst that Disney could do; Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent is a largely thankless reimagining that’s blind to its own CGI gumbo and tone deaf in both what it’s presenting on screen and who it’s hoping to attract. Aggravatingly lifeless, Maleficent wastes a terrifically costumed Angelina Jolie in favor of the most pointless 100 minutes of filmmaking to be on display in recent memory.
Working off the ‘here’s the real story’ conspiracy trope, the fantasy picture begins with the young, winged fairy, Maleficent, soaring through her fantasy land of the Moors before coming upon a young human boy, the first she’s ever encountered. Contrary to what she has been recognized as (Maleficent’s design is one of the most famous in all of Disney’s iconography), young Maleficent is quaint and naïve, soon striking up an unlikely friendship with the young boy, named Stefan, who comes to visit her frequently. He bestows upon her the gift of ‘true love’s first kiss’ when they both reach the age of sixteen, but then their paths do not cross again for a number of years. By this point, Stefan (grown into marble-mouthed Sharlto Copley) is looking to succeed his father on the throne in the neighboring land of men and Maleficent (aged into razor-cheeked Angelina Jolie) still rules the Moors as its feared protector. Stefan returns to Maleficent only to betray her, leaving her heartbroken and wingless while Stefan, whose father was mortally wounded by Maleficent, rises to the throne of his kingdom. But Maleficent’s despair turns into vengeance when she learns of Stefan’s motives, and upon the coronation of Stefan’s first born child, Aurora, Maleficent makes a memorable appearance, cursing the infant child to an eternal, death-like sleep upon her sixteenth birthday that can only be broken by true love’s first kiss.
Up until this point, the film is only pretty bad, but it gets far worse as it continues down a tiringly unfocused storyline that plays parallel to Sleeping Beauty. The prologue with young Maleficent and young Stefan acts in accordance with most fantasy prologues and it’s a swift introduction to both the world that is on display and the director’s intentions to guide us through said world. On both accounts, Maleficent is a big swing-and-a-miss right away. The world is abundant with tacky CGI sets against what looks like James Cameron’s unused process shots from Avatar. The animations are vibrant, but director Robert Stromberg confuses creativity with bewilderment, pumping computer generated life into gross dancing frogs and flying kimono dragons that are useless above awe-inspiring purposes that inspire very little awe. It seems like one of these many strange and ultimately nightmarish cartoons might become Maleficent’s Sebastian or Mushu, but they idle about the flat landscapes that hardly look like they were worth $200 million. Maleficent’s companion ends up being her self-made animagus, Diaval (acceptably played by Sam Riley, worthy of far better work), who prefers being turned into a crow rather than a wolf (really?) and is about as confused about Maleficent’s ethical flip-flops as we are.
In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a majestic source of evil; no character who looks like she does or can turn into a god damn fire-breathing dragon is maternal material, but screenwriter Linda Woolverton thinks otherwise. Normally spoilers are not my tendency, but this film is so ludicrously wooly, bent on undoing the legacy of Sleeping Beauty that by revealing this information I feel like I’m handing out a generous warning. After Maleficent bestows her curse onto the seemingly undeserving Aurora (granted, what Stefan did to Maleficent is the fantasy version of date rape), Stefan sends her into the keep of three bumbling pixies (creepily given grow-shrink powers and painfully played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) who are to care for her for sixteen years and a day, which will exceed the timeline outlined by Maleficent’s curse. Maleficent keeps a watchful eye on Aurora throughout her adolescence (having blossomed into Elle Fanning) and upon their first direct interaction, Maleficent pretends to be Aurora’s fairy godmother. Maleficent’s decision to become a vengeful source of evil quickly diminishes as she grows attached to the charm that is Aurora, and she ultimately begins to regret the curse that she put upon the young girl to begin with. She even tries to remove the curse herself, dismayed by her own roadblocks (“no power on Earth shall repel this curse.”). Nice work, Mal.
As we near the climax, with Aurora learning of her cursed existence and her crowned father (now so ravaged by insanity that Jamie Lannister would do good to vanquish him from the realm), her encounter with the famed spinning wheel needle is now only a few contrivances and fabricated emotional beats away, and it’s shown that Maleficent raced to the castle in order to stop Aurora from adhering to the curse, as opposed to stopping the prince (blankly played by Brenton Thwaites) from delivering ‘true love’s first kiss.’ Actually, the prince is rendered entirely useless come to think of it. Where the logic in this film disappeared to I think will be everyone’s biggest question.
Somehow, it gets even worse from there, with the climactic dragon sequence being remixed for less-than-stellar results, and a maddeningly endless showdown between Stefan and Maleficent that possesses such backward stakes (so…we want the legendary villain to win this one…?). But I guess that’s not surprising when this entire movie has been so backwards, so visionless and ethically incomprehensible that long before we reach the third act the point of Maleficent seems nonexistant. It’s pitched like the opposing hearsay in a police investigation, as if Maleficent was brought into an interrogation room and got a chance to tell her side of the story, which totally Rashomon’s the animated film’s. But we don’t sympathize with Maleficent, in fact we feel robbed; the film is utterly joyless because the villain ends up not being the villain at all! If you wanted to see Angelina Jolie have fun being wicked, in the words of Tyrion Lannister, “You’ve come to the wrong place.”
The only scene that works to the film’s benefit is right in between the first and second acts; a glimmer of hope in between a pretty bad opening and the horrendous remainder of the picture. It’s Aurora’s coronation that fires on all cylinders, as if it were either part of a far more imaginative and respectable film or just a standalone experiment turning one of Disney Animations’ most memorable moments into a live action project. This sequence is humanized exactly as the original film played it, with killer visuals to match it; Jolie conjures up a bravura storm of charming sarcasm and treacherous evil, damning the offspring of King Stefan and turning her into the eponymous princess of the classic fairytale. Jolie revels at the opportunity to be bad, but it’s the only bit the film provides for her, peeking at something that could have been fun and fantastical but chose to weary itself with recycled special effects and forgot to bring imagination along for the ride.
Lastly, the film’s target audience remains a massive mystery. Tonally, Maleficent remains baffling; at times it overly romanticizes its fantasy roots to a dreary, cringe-worthy fault, while at other times it’s annoyingly theatrical to entice the younger ages, even though they’ll be scared to death by the action sequences. Of the three set pieces (two bookenders and a lazy one in the middle), the opening feels like a carbon copy of Prince Caspian and borrows tons of gruesome beasts from the stocks of Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson. If this wasn’t the umpteenth time we’ve seen these kinds of monsters, they might be slightly alluring to the older crowds, but little kids will be covering their eyes the entire time unable to tell their parents what any of the creatures look like. The dragon sequence too will keep youngsters awake at night (the MPAA really missed the mark on this one), but for the elder viewers it doesn’t hold a candle to the animated version where MALEFICENT IS THE DRAGON. Still, this doesn’t match the weirdly psycho-sexual overtones that in a more daring director’s (or studio’s) hands would have been fascinating to study. Maleficent’s desires to go dark are half-baked, but the shadowy material it manages to contain is just eerily empty amidst its surroundings.
In case you needed any more proof, Maleficent is a dreadful misfire that looks to set fire to childhood memories and make new generations aware of Disney’s famed properties without doing Disney itself any sort of justice. If anything, it’s a greater reminder why nobody’s daughter wants to be Aurora for Halloween (c’mon, Dad, she’s fucking sleeping!) and why fantasy reimaginings are piss-poor ways to milk the franchise cow – we haven’t totally forgotten about Snow White and the Huntsman (which is a problem because we want to). Dully serviced technically by composer James Newton Howard, who does his worst Danny Elfman impression, and cinematographer Dean Sempel, an Academy Award winner for Dances with Wolves who will next be credited as director of photography on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, director Robert Stromberg should stick to his day job. While his insight into production design is surely expansive, he’s got little skill as a filmmaker. And even with Jolie trying hard to make this one not the longest hour and forty minutes one could be trapped in an IMAX theater, a bland Elle Fanning, an obnoxious Sharlto Copley, and a logistically arbitrary script weigh down the actress tragically (a shame, she looks the part glamorously).
Limp and torturous, Maleficent is a far cry from Disney magic, and a real bore that would do right to bomb as it has no real demographic pull. Call it an overstatement if you like, but we’d prefer a sleep-like death to ever giving this film a second watch.
Review by Mike Murphy