A film review by Craig J. Koban June 13, 2014 


2014, PG, 97 mins.


Angelina Jolie as Maleficent  /  Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora  /  Juno Temple as Thistletwit  /  Sharlto Copley as Stefan  /  Miranda Richardson as Queen Ulla  /  Imelda Staunton as Knotgrass  /  Sam Riley as Diaval  /  Peter Capaldi as King Kinloch  /  Jamie Sives as Shepherd  /  Lesley Manville as Flittle  /  

Directed by Robert Stromberg  /  Written by Linda Woolverton


MALEFICENT is a potentially dramatic re-imagining of the mythology from Disney’s 1959 animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY.  More or less, it focuses squarely on telling the ageless tale largely from the villain’s perspective, with her back-story fleshed out and expanded upon to allow for us to radically re-reinterpret our opinions of her.  

At the helm of it all of this is Angelina Jolie portraying the title character, and she’s so devilishly good at bringing a larger than life presence on screen here that, quite frankly, she’s the only element that kept me invested in the film.  Without Jolie, MALEFICENT is a murky, tedious, woefully overproduced, and disenchanting live action fantasy that’s awash with many flavorless characters and middling-to-average looking CGI artifice, the latter which borders on obtrusively distracting at times. 

At least the film tries to give some psychological motives for its main character’s descent into evil while honoring and subverting some of SLEEPING BEAUTY’s more familiar canonical elements.  We are introduced to Maleficent as a young fairy that meets and becomes fast friends with a human boy named Stefan, and their friendship unavoidably blossoms into love.  Unfortunately, as the pair grows older they grow further apart and become estranged from one another.  Years pass and the adult Maleficent (Jolie) has become the leader of her kind, whereas Stefan (Sharlto Copley) remains steadfastly loyal to humanity’s King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), who’s bound and determined to rid the world of Maleficent and her brethren forever.  In a daring battle, Maleficent emerges as the victor against the King’s army, leaving the monarch wanting her blood even more. 

Wanting to assume the throne after Henry dies, Stefan pledges an oath to the dying King that he will slay Maleficent.  He does plan a chance meeting with his old flame, but he quickly betrays and drugs her, cuts off her wings, and leaves her a dejected and broken woman.  He returns with the severed wings to the King, after which he is awarded for his actions by becoming the true heir to the throne.  Completely broken hearted and bitter, Maleficent plots ultimate vengeance on the newly anointed King Stefan by placing a curse on his newly born daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), which involves her falling into a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday.  



There is, at the very least, a somewhat compelling personal arc for Jolie’s titular character in MALEFICENT in the sense that, unlike the 1959 animated film (where she was pure, unadulterated evil), she begins the film as an innocent, is betrayed, morphs into a villain (for understandable reasons), commits a dastardly deed in cursing an infant, and then does an about-face and tries to redeem her indiscretions.  MALEFICENT seems to relish the idea of coming up with an origin story basked in personal tragedy for the tormented fairy and then seems equally invested in chronicling her unlikely redemption by becoming a fairy godmother to the very girl she cursed in the first place; there are kernels of intriguing material here. 

Jolie works small miracles with her role, portraying the deeply conflicting emotions that reside within Maleficent throughout the film.  She physically looks astounding as well, with her razor sharp cheekbones (via some bravura Rick Baker makeup effects), her ruby red lipstick, and darkly theatrical horns and ghoulishly majestic apparel.  Sadly, she’s such an omnipresent force of nature and focal point in all of her scenes that we seem to forget that others are trying to occupy them as well.  Nonetheless, it’s a joy to see Jolie really sink her teeth into a role with reckless abandon.  There’s also an argument to be made that her character on paper is perhaps more compellingly rendered than just about anything else in the film. 

Alas, that’s the problem with MALEFICENT: the whole movie built around Jolie’s intoxicating allure lacks…overall enchantment.  Pretty much all of the supporting characters reside rather languidly on the screen while in her presence.  Sharlto Copley can grimace and play gonzo-bonkers rage and insanity with the best of them, but he’s not really given a character that’s fully realized at all.  If anything, King Stefan’s motivations for betraying Maleficent are mechanically derived and laughably contrived; the screenplay never provides him with a tangible and relatable motive for him to betray her…other than the needs of the script to provide easy conflict and later easier payoffs.  

Then there are three fairy characters (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, alternating between human form and creepy, glassy eyed CGI creatures) that are meant, I think, to provide simplistic comic relief, but instead emerge as more annoying than amusing.  As for Sleeping Beauty herself?  Elle Fanning does very little with her stilted and one-note performance than obnoxiously giggle and smiling on cue…and not much else.  Aurora is embarrassingly shallow as a character - considering her relative importance to Maleficent - whose strings are opportunely pulled by the narrative whenever it deems it necessary.  You feel little, if anything, for Aurora and her plight throughout the story as a direct result. 

The direction of MALEFICENT – from first timer Robert Stromberg, whom previously won Oscars for art direction on AVATAR and ALICE IN WONDERLAND – seems schizophrenic at best.  The film’s overall look is all over the proverbial map: sometimes it's lively and colorful, and other times dour and depressingly gloomy.  Worse yet is that Stromberg places great emphasis – far too much, actually – on pixelized fakery in nearly every shot, which has the counterintuitive effect of making the film feel like a sub par visual effects demo reel than a fully realized fantasy epic.  There are some visual flourishes that do inspire legitimate wonder, but so much of MALEFICENT is littered with frenzied, inconsistently rendered, and bombastically eye-straining computer rendered artifice that it overwhelms the inherent drama of the underlining story of redemption contained within.  MALEFICENT could have greatly benefited from a more restrained level artifice. 

That, and the film – even at a seemingly brisk 97 minutes – is a dull, watch checking experience at the movies.  MALEFICENT proves that you can throw as much would-be alluring visual effects on screen as you want and still lose an audience on fundamental story and character levels.  There is no doubt that Jolie – making a return to the screen after a four-year absence – is a sight to behold in MALEFICENT and she keeps the whole enterprise afloat.   Mournfully, though, the film fails to inspire the type of wondrous awe that great fantasy films should elicit in viewers.  Instead, it inspires much listless fidgeting in theatre seats, which I think was not the intended effect.  There are some recent examples of bold and inspired re-interpretations of classic fairy tales (see SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN), but MALEFICENT is far too easily forgettable to be placed in that category. 

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