Thursday, June 5, 2014

Maleficent Review

(dir. Robert Stromberg)

Walt Disney Pictures

“I had wings once, and they were strong. But they were stolen from me.”

     Disney’s Maleficent continues the recent trend of revisiting classic fairy tales as big budget spectacles. The film seeks to give depth to the titular character, exploring the source of her villainy. While the marketing for the film depicted an eerie, sinister atmosphere, the film is actually much lighter than what the trailers have suggested. The film presents some interesting ideas, and like Frozen it smartly circumvents that traditional trope of love at first sight, but it is ultimately undone by its poor pacing and forced plot points.

     The story begins with young Maleficent, a powerful fairy who lives within a magical realm called The Moors. The Moors are bordered by a human kingdom that has long been in conflict with the fairies of The Moors. Stefan, a poor human boy enters the Moors one day and befriends Maleficent.  As they grow up they fall in love but Stefan’s relationship with Maleficent is tested by his desire to become King. After a battle with the Moors, the King is gravely injured by Maleficent and Stefan is given the opportunity to become the King’s successor if he can kill Maleficent. Stefan ultimately betrays Maleficent which sets her up to cast her spell of revenge that she takes out on Stefan’s daughter Aurora. What follows is a twist on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) complete with a dragon, Prince Phillip, and the three pixies: Thistlewit, Knotgrass, and Flittle (who are easily the most irritating characters in the film).

     Maleficent and Stefan’s relationship is central to the arc that Maleficent undergoes but that arc is hampered by the film’s reliance on summary through voice-over instead of providing necessary character moments between them. The narrator tells us that they fall in love but the audience is never shown this. The narrator tells us that Stefan desires the crown but we never see why. Upon Stefan’s return to The Moors, the narrator tells us that he and Maleficent talk of many things but the audience is never privy to this conversation. Their entire relationship exists only as an ill-defined idea.  The tragedy of their relationship is necessary to move the story forward but the tragedy isn’t particularly tragic from an emotional standpoint because no time is taken to explore their interaction. This oversight proves damaging to the climax, which is not as thrilling or resonating as it conceptually should have been.

     Sharlto Copley is unfortunately just as miscast in this film as he has been in every movie he’s been in post-District 9. His performance as Stefan is unconvincing in both intent and accent.  He does not believably create a character that could have ever been in love with Maleficent. Instead Stefan is a one-note villain that lacks depth and true motivation. As it becomes increasingly clear that Maleficent is not the film’s antagonist we are left with Stefan who simply waits for sixteen years to take action, not because it’s a logical character action, but because it’s what the plot demands. The film bides for time with digital effects shots, seemingly unsure what to do with all the characters it has introduced and how to create compelling scenes with anyone other than Maleficent. This leaves the film with too many inactive characters while the story waits for Aurora to turn sixteen and once she does the story resolves itself so quickly that any real sense of tension is left behind.

     Angelina Jolie gives a wonderful performance and she clearly has fun with the role, relishing in the idea of being evil. She conveys both the beauty and terror of Maleficent and creates layered character moments in spite of being in need of a better script. Maleficent’s relationship with Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) gives the character an interesting conflict to work through and offers a unique twist on the story.  Though this relationship too (to a lesser extent than with Stefan) too often relies on voice-over and too brief scenes to earn the emotional impact the filmmakers wanted the ending to achieve.

     Stromberg, who worked as a production designer on Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Oz The Great and Powerful, creates some beautiful visuals. There are some fantastic shots in the film that really capture the iconic look of Maleficent. It’s clear that Stromberg is far more comfortable with the dialogue-less scenes that explore the world and its creatures than he is with character interactions. The concept artists, costume designers, and make-up artist extraordinaire Rick Baker must really be commended for the work on the film. For all of its problems, it’s certainly an interesting film from a visual standpoint.

     Maleficent isn’t a bad film; it has too much unexplored potential to be bad. Rather it’s a disappointing skeleton of a film, filled with empty moments wanting to be explored and emotional arcs that needed to be taken further. Ultimately the story here would have perhaps been better served in a medium other than a full length, live-action film. Despite the spectacle, and Angelina Jolie’s performance, Maleficent lacks too many elements to create magic.

Grade: C+

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