Starring: Angelina Jolie (Wanted), Sharlto Copley (District 9), Elle Fanning (Super 8), Sam Riley (Byzantium), Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), Lesley Manville (Vera Drake), Juno Temple (The Dark Knight Rises)
Director: Robert Stromberg
Writer: Linda Woolverton (Alice in Wonderland)
Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes
Release Date: 28 May (UK), 30 May (US)
Reworkings of classic fantasy stories are all the rage these days. Whether it be Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, there’s always some film that reinterprets an old tale or is a prequel or a sequel or whatever on the market. Sometimes they work, but a lot of the time they don’t. Maleficent is the latest in this trend, retelling the story of Disney’s own Sleeping Beauty, the twist here being that it’s being told from the perspective of that film’s villain; it’s basically Wicked, but with less interesting source material to work from. Based on the few things I’d heard about this film, I didn’t expect much from this film, but what I got was far worse than I could have possibly imagined.
Let’s all be honest here: the original Sleeping Beauty doesn’t hold up very well. Yes, the art direction and animation is beautiful and Maleficent herself remains one of Disney’s most iconic villains, but the story is incredibly bland and the characters are exactly the kind of one-dimensional dopes that Enchanted was making fun of. There is ample room for improvement and embellishment in this story, but Maleficent never really takes full advantage of this opportunity, instead making the bizarre decision to turn this simplistic fairy tale into what is essentially a kid-friendly version of I Spit on Your Grave. No, I am not kidding; more on that disturbing note later. The first act of the story tells Maleficent’s origins, casting her in a good light before showing her descent into darkness. The problem is that her motivations for turning evil are pretty weak and her transformation into the character we all know and love to hate could be kindly described as ‘out-of-f*cking-nowhere’. It would be fine if she then stayed evil throughout, but immediately the film starts backpedalling and goes “No, she’s still actually good. Honest!” By the end of it all, Maleficent comes off as misunderstood not because of her appearance or her actions, but because it’s bloody hard to actually understand what’s going through her head. One minute she’s cursing Aurora to eternal sleep, the next she’s saving her life because…because! The entire film is full on contrived writing and on-the-nose dialogue, making it hard to invest in the story, concluding in an ending that seems like it’s trying to come off as fresh and inventive, but it ends up feeling like a bad rip-off of the end of Frozen. Top it all off with terrible pacing and obnoxiously constant narration that spoon-feeds you the narrative, and Maleficent ends up doing little to make this tired old tale seem any more interesting and actually does more to destroy it.
Angelina Jolie seems to have been born to play Maleficent, and for a brief moment in the film she is truly great. When she’s allowed to go full on nefarious, she oozes with villainy and eats up every moment. Unfortunately, this is only for a few scenes because before and after these fleeting moments the character isn’t that compelling. The film’s way of making her a ‘tragic hero’ is ultimately by making her a woman scorned by romance because her childhood love Stefan (Copley) seduces her, drugs her and rips off her wings. Ignoring for a second the baffling and icky subtext of that entire sequence of events that I could easily write a venomous deconstruction of (it rhymes with ‘schmape’), it’s a poor motivation for this character to suddenly become evil, and her turn back to the light is even more poorly handled. Jolie herself seems to putting her all into it, but the material she’s given just doesn’t give her enough to stand on. Stefan himself is played completely for villainy, his own motivations being he wants the crown because…I guess all humans are meant to be inherently evil or something, and Copley plays the role incredibly hammy and with such a terrible Scottish accent that he seems to be choking on it; he ends up being less a threatening presence and more simply unintentionally hilarious. Aurora herself has been given barely anymore definition than she had in the original, with Elle Fanning playing the empty shell so overly whimsical that she looks more like she belongs in an ad for laundry detergent than a fantasy film. The fairies (Staunton, Manville and Temple), the most competent characters in the original film, have been completely reversed into bumbling waifs who end up being so useless that Maleficent herself ends up subtly doing most of the parenting herself. The idea of giving Maleficent’s crow Diaval a bigger role and making him human half the time is an interesting one, but Sam Riley isn’t given much more to do than be the voice of reason on Maleficent’s shoulder. And don’t get me started on what they’ve done to Prince Phillip (or, as I like to call him, Prince Plot Device), who arrives late in the second act to no fanfare, seems put in just to move the plot towards its majorly ‘revisionist’ climax, and somehow has even less of a character than he did in the original.
Director Robert Stromberg mainly has a background in production design, having won Oscars for his work on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. Whilst it is painfully obvious the man has no flair for directing actors based on the flat or overdone delivery of the dialogue, at least the movie looks gorgeous. The cinematography and art direction are wonderfully done, capturing the unique style of the original Sleeping Beauty whilst injecting elements of dark fantasy and a healthy dose of Miyazaki-esque whimsy. The costumes are also well designed and fitting, especially those worn by the title character herself, the visual effects are well done (most notably any time Maleficent flies), and the score is fitting if overdone at points.
Maleficent is a baffling mess of a film. The story is contrived and achingly paced, the main character’s motivation is sudden and dripping with bewilderingly mishandled subtext that borders on offensive the more you think about it, and everyone else ends up feeling somehow even more of a bland caricature than the characters in the original. Maleficent was a fascinating character because we didn’t know much about her; she was a purely evil force of nature and that’s all we needed in such a simplistic story. But, like how every remake of a classic horror film does these days, by giving her a back-story and some sympathy the character’s allure gets completely destroyed. I get the impression that if handled by anyone other than Disney themselves, this could have been an interesting deconstruction of the fairy tale, but the whole affair seems neutered by the marketing machine that leaves a battered and confused pile of ‘what?’. All I can say nice about it is that it looks pretty, but looks alone can’t save anything. By the end of the film, I certainly wished the whole endeavour was just a bad dream.
FINAL VERDICT: 2/10