The recent string of live-action fairy tales – usually twists on classic stories in an attempt to provide extra depth – hasn’t been all that critically successful. Films like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful earned Disney piles of cash, but neither surpassed or even equaled the quality of their source material or the more well-known adaptations. In theatres this weekend is Maleficent, Disney’s twist on Sleeping Beauty in where focus is put on the tale’s dark villainess instead of the young, cursed princess.
Right off the bat, Maleficent gets at least one thing right the animated Sleeping Beauty never did: Maleficent is definitely the star. Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty is a triumph of animation and is still arguably one of the Mouse House’s best pictures, but Princess Aurora – the titular Sleeping Beauty – might as well have been a pretty blow-up doll for the agency she has in her own film. Even a child watching Sleeping Beauty recognizes the film’s real draw is the iconic villainess, Maleficent, and her climactic battle and eventual death at the hands of Prince Phillip.
Knowing this, it’s obvious why Disney chose Maleficent’s backstory as the perfect vehicle for an updated retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent is a character already operating with her own agenda and is easily updated to be made more sympathetic, more relatable, and therefore a fitting protagonist for Disney’s next live-action spectacle.
So… how does Maleficent stack up against Disney’s previous attempts? From a visual standpoint Disney hasn’t made a more beautiful film, at least not in recent memory. Which isn’t all too surprising when you have Academy Award-winning art director, Robert Stromberg helming. From sweeping shots of the countryside to twinkling fairies flitting through the moors to, of course, the stunning and captivating design of its lead character – the movie looks damn good. For the most part the CG is great. There are only a few times the visual effects look cheap and perhaps a few of those creature designs were a little lazy, choosing rather to stick with generic fantasy motifs over something truly original. But overall Maleficent is stunning. (Is it worth the extra bucks for 3D? Eh, while not terrible or detracting, it wasn’t entirely necessary.)
What is also evident, unfortunately, are Stromberg’s missteps as a first time director. There are some really interesting things going on in Maleficent, and topics I never expected a Disney film to touch with a ten-foot pole, but they’re mishandled and therefor don’t deliver the satisfying experience this movie could have been. Themes of female empowerment, revenge, regret are rampant and provide a lot of meaty material for the film to explore, it’s just never allowed to really delve in to them.
For example, Maleficent comes extremely close to having an honest discussion of rape culture and abuse, but chooses instead to veer towards safer territory filled with a poorly explained conflict between man and magic, obnoxious and inept fairy caretakers, and a king who’s such a tool it’s unbelievable his subjects aren’t in open rebellion.
How much of Linda Woolverton‘s (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) screenplay remains intact is unclear, but there are likely scenes that were either not filmed or later cut which may have given Maleficent a more cohesive story and thematic message. The film clocks in at one hour and 37 minutes, and while I wouldn’t necessarily have it be much longer, a few less scenes of Maleficent zooming through the sky or lurking in the bushes in favor a bit more time spent detailing her journey from victimized and vengeful villain to eventual hero could have made all the difference.
While I’m critical, I should make it clear I enjoyed Maleficent (which seeing as the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score is plummeting, can’t be said of everyone). The film’s saving grace is Angelina Jolie‘s performance. It’s no secret Maleficent wouldn’t have even been made had Jolie not agreed to star, and the film is far better than it has any right being because of her. Jolie is subtle and perhaps a tad too reserved at times, but she’s not without emotion. More than a few of her scenes are really moving, and in fact one had me honestly choked up.
The only thing I would have liked to see more of from Jolie’s Maleficent was her villainous side as she isn’t shown being all that evil, if even misguided, for much of the film. Only the infamous scene when she curses the infant Aurora comes close to having her appear truly menacing. In contrast to the dickish King Stefan, Maleficent is practically a saint who’s only wrong doing was taking out her justifiable anger on the wrong person.
The cast surrounding Jolie does an admirable job, though for the most part they’re all playing very flat, stock fairy tale characters. Elle Fanning in endlessly charming as Aurora, and the scenes developing her relationship with Jolie’s Maleficent are the film’s strongest. Again, I could have done with a little less excessive CG wonder and more of the pair’s budding friendship. As Aurora’s father, King Stefan, Sharlto Copley excels at being a massive dick, and since it seems that’s what the role calls for, he nailed it. And as Maleficent’s sidekick, the crow turned man Diaval, Sam Riley has good rapport with Jolie and their playful bickering is fun, but sadly underused.
Performance wise, the only poor showing was from Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville as the three fairies Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle (What was wrong with Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather?). However, I won’t fault the actresses, they’re all talented, but the characters they’re given are dreadful. Plus, the CG used to make them pixie-sized is unnerving.
Sadly, once all is said and done Maleficent doesn’t do much to stand apart or above any of Disney’s other live-action fairy tales. If you’re in it for the spectacle and are content with admiring Jolie’s captivating and stylish portrayal, you should be pleased. Those looking for more depth, more development, however, will be disappointed. In the end, Maleficent is hindered by being a Disney product and therefor needing to be as family friendly as it could with a PG rating. And that’s a real shame, because its potential is almost overwhelming, it’s simply the execution that falters.