Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Sharlto Copley as King Stefan
Sam Riley as Diaval
Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora
Imelda Staunton as Knotgrass
Juno Temple as Thistlewit
Lesley Manville as Flittle
Ella Purnell and Isobelle Molloy as Young Maleficent
Toby Regbo and Michael Higgins as Young Stefan
Brenton Thwaites as Phillip
Directed by Robert Stromberg
Once upon a time, writers of fairy tales (or the animated films based on them), when it was time to come up with the dastardly villain hell-bent on ruining things for our handsome prince or princess, had no problem setting them up against a wicked witch or wicked fairy godmother or what have you. There was no need to worry about motive or characterization that way, it was right there in the name. They did what they did because they were bad, case closed.
That’s the old school approach. The new school approach says that no one is bad in their own eyes, in context all actions make sense to the person performing them and black and white morality is an illusion covering up the more complex world we really live in. Hence we get books about what really happened with Dracula, musicals about what really happened with the Wicked Witch of the West and now a movie about what really happened to Maleficent.
In and of itself, it’s a good idea, both in leveraging a classic villain and in attempting to bring complexity to a genre which has tended to the simplistic in its morality and characterization. As with all things, though, it’s the follow-through that really counts and the good idea behind “Maleficent” doesn’t have wings big enough to carry a clumsy script or a first-time director across the finish line, giving us a ham-handed and overdone film from the relentless James Newton Howard score to its pointless effects-filled set pieces consuming people no one has bothered to make us care about.
First off though, let’s be clear that Robert Stromberg has delivered a beautiful film, filled with breathtaking images that blend computer created landscapes and human actors together into something more like an oil painting than a film, which is to be expected from a two-time Academy Award winner who has already done the same as a visual effects artist on “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
Unfortunately he lives up to the cliché of craftsmen only being able to deliver on what they already know when they get sent up to the big chair, with most everything in the film being transformed into a canvas for his images. This includes Jolie herself who comes across more as a prop for the make-up artists and costumers and cameramen to focus on, than the star of a film creating the performance of the story’s central character. Maleficent lounges and slinks and glowers and very occasionally speaks leaving us mostly to guess about what she thinks about all the things happening to her. Like the digital fairy tale world she lives in she is beautiful, but hollow.
Most of these problems ultimately land at the doorstep of Linda Woolverton’s (“Alice in Wonderland”) script for the troubled film, which saw last minute reshoots of the first act written by “Blind Side” helmer John Lee Hancock. Woolverton seems to have realized how little she knows about Maleficient and reverts to a constant storybook narrator, attempting to both show and tell at the same time and doing neither particularly well. The result is flat characters which, because they belong to such an old fairy tale, could be forgiven for being archetypes, and Woolverton forgiven for playing with them. But the line between an archetype and cliché is very, very thin and I’m not certain the makers of “Maleficient” really know where it is.
Worse, the botched handling overrides the few moments when the film does succeed at its intention, which unfortunately culminates early on with a recreation of the character’s classic “Sleeping Beauty” entrance. Here it has a much clearer and darker motivation, stemming from an attack on her by King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) whom she had once loved and was betrayed by when Stefan removed her wings in her sleep (and with them her innocence) in order to appease the superstitious king, trading their young love for the throne.
It’s good stuff with all the elements of heady drama and so it’s quickly thrown away in favor of unfunny jokes from the other fairies, unhelpful grimacing and screaming from Stefan as he falls into madness–either from guilt from his treachery or because a film about a bad guy needs a worse guy for an antagonist–and uninformative staring from Jolie as she watches young Princess Aurora (Fanning) grow to adulthood and begins to regret the rash choices of her youth.
And that’s what is most disappointing about “Maleficient” – the wealth of good ideas gone to waste in favor of a pageantry of images and fight scenes which are not up to carrying a film of just 90 minutes without a good deal of boredom setting in. It’s probably not proof that retelling a classic story through the villain’s eyes is unworkable, but it does prove you need more than just a good concept to get across the finish line. Unfortunately, there’s not enough visual effects juice in the world to put real magic into this turkey.