Where’s the Menace?
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Angelina Jolie shines as Maleficent, but Maleficent as a film does not. The main problem with the film is the complete lack of consistency. On one hand, the film tries to make Maleficent into a more multi-layered villain but at the same time it creates an empty villain in King Stefan. The Faerieland presents a model of collective governance in contrast with King Stefan’s autocracy, but at the end of the film there is a jarring, random unification that upholds a benevolent monarch idea. The idea of retelling Sleeping Beauty from its villain’s perspective is an interesting idea, and Wicked proved that it can be done with panache while still keeping elements of the original tale intertwined. Director Rober Stormberg is an Oscar winner and performs his visual effects with panache, but as a director he makes really odd decisions, like not focusing for example. Often he finds a visually stunning shot that actually feeds into the story and he oddly just cuts away immediately. The final scene is gorgeous, but ultimately it raises far too many questions before the screen cuts to black and Lana Del Ray’s appropriately haunting “Once Upon a Dream” begins to play. There are beautiful moments throughout the brisk 97-minute running time, but ultimately the entire enterprise seems far too rushed to make the impact it obviously wants to. Another half-hour could have been phenomenally helpful, especially in the climax. Ultimately, what Maleficent tries to do is the same thing, but unfortunately it flounders and destroys moments from the original tale that actually worked because it never truly decides what it wants to be.
The opening sequences revolve around the revelation of the moor and Maleficent meeting Stefan for the first time as a young child. As time goes on, an unnatural friendship between a fairy and a human develops into a romance, but then Stefan drifts away, consumed by his own ambition to move away from his poverty and into the King’s castle. The king, consumed by the divide between the kingdom of humans and the self-ruling domain of the faeries, launches an attack. His forces get crushed and routed in a brilliantly realized battle sequence that combines elements of Lord of the Rings and Pan’s Labyrinth. The king is defeated and we also learn that faeries are burned by iron, the fairy tale version of Kryptonite I guess. The king is furious that his legacy will be of defeat, although in all retrospect that was a pretty stupid decision to begin with. He offers his kingdom to whomever can kill Maleficent, which is a great way to run your kingdom into the ground if you ask me. Stefan knows he can get into the forest and he slowly befriends Maleficent again. Here is the most disturbing scene in the film and kudos to the film for not flinching away. Stefan gives Maleficent the fairy tale equivalent of a date rape drug and then proceeds to kill her. He can’t, so he does the next best thing. He uses a chain and proceeds to rip her wings from off of her back. He rides away, even though he hears Maleficent’s terrifying screams and sobs as she realizes what happened to her. The film does a great job with not treating this as a passing incident, and her physical and mental frailty after that is portrayed exceptionally by Jolie. She darkens in character and finds herself a Transfiguration puppet bird by the name of Diaval (played well by Sam Riley). He flies to the castle, where he learns that Stefan presented the wings as proof of Maleficent’s demise and became king. Maleficent is enraged and rightfully so. She goes on a path of destruction and makes herself Queen of the Moors, cementing her burgeoning darkness. There’s a couple of problems with this scenario. One, I find it quite hard to believe that the other nobles would accept a peasant on the throne with such ridiculous ease. Granted, it’s a fairy tale, but it is still quite the stretch of the imagination. Also, Sharlto Copley delivers an oddly stifled performance as Stefan, keeping to his South African accent as the rest of the cast is notably British in accents. Beyond those two, it is a troubling notion that Maleficent becomes evil because of Stefan’s betrayal and violation alone. It’s understandable, but also creates a rather thin foundation for Maleficent’s character. More complications in this segment would have been welcome.
The scene that Maleficent nails is the christening scene. The throne room goes dark, a chilling wind blows all the lights out, casting a darkened shadow over the ceremony. It begins with a mesmerizing shot of Maleficent’s silhouette entering the castle, a dark, eerie image barely lit. It’s a breathtaking shot, the dark silhouette, but Stormberg annoyingly cuts away after about five seconds. Jolie tantalizingly makes her way through the crowed, staring at the man who had mutilated her with sheer coldness. He pleads unconvincingly with her to not give a “gift” to the child and she coldly commands him to beg again. He does but Maleficent doesn’t give a damn. She curses Aurora with the spindle touch and notes that only a true love’s kiss would awaken her at the age of sixteen. As far as she believes, true love doesn’t exist. Jolie is perfect in this sequence, her crackling wickedness on brilliant and powerful display. It’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t give her many opportunities to display that dark wickedness.
The weakest segment by far is the middle. It’s mostly Maleficent in the shadows, watching Aurora grow up in the midst of her fairy godmothers. The three, played by the standout Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville, are so thoroughly incompetent at raising a child, it is frankly a surprise that Aurora actually manages to live to the age of 16. I guess they don’t have child protective services in Stefan’s kingdom. Maleficent saves Aurora from starving and death multiple times and although it creates a welcome complication in her character, this whole middle chunk could have been spent in a much, much better fashion. Stefan has lulled into despair and he barely blinks a damn eye as he is told his wife has died. So much for the whole “we will stand together forever” vow thing, right? Maleficent undoubtedly would know about the despair and a much more interesting film would show Maleficent actively working to undermine Stefan’s rule through his populace and the nobility alike. But instead we get absurd moments that are funny (like the rain in the house) that do absolutely nothing to serve the story beyond a few laughs. It’s understandable that the film wants to present a conflict between Maleficent’s curse and Aurora’s innocence, but it does so in the most banal way possible.
Aurora wanders into the forest, a grown 16-year old played by Elle Fanning. She’s enchanted by the beautiful moors, believing Maleficent to be her fairy godmother, with good reason I suppose. A good section of the film, it’s a psychological struggle for Maleficent as she comes to terms with the curse she had placed upon an innocent child for the sins of her father. Maleficent sees Aurora as a bridge between the realm of the humans and faeries and this was prime material for a discussion between the two of their world views, but not much comes from the film on that front, either. She wants to live in the moors and naturally her fairy godmothers are aghast that she would actually want to live where her guardian was somewhat competent. She begins to grow an attachment to the child and even attempts to renounce the curse, but that doesn’t work. Aurora herself is aghast that Maleficent was the fairy that had placed upon the curse and she ran to the castle, where she receives a stupendously indifferent welcome from her father. She walks slowly into a room that housed all the broken spindles, where one magically transforms into a spindle anew. She touches the spindle and boom, there it is. Maleficent grows aghast but finds that Prince Phillip may be the true love that would unlock her curse.
The character of Prince Phillip is basically thrown in because he needed to be there. He’s not bad but aside from one good piece of dialogue, he gets almost nothing to do. Aurora and the prince are immediately enchanted with each other because they’re teenagers. He’s lost in a forest and in a way, so is she. Then he rides off without asking for directions, which makes no sense because he just stated that he was lost in the forest. Anyhow, Maleficent delivers him into the castle and the fairy godmothers force him to kiss Aurora. He protests, saying kissing her would be wrong while she’s unconscious and the film immediately gains an entire score for that one line. Great stuff right there. He does kiss her after the three explain the whole “she’s cursed and the true love’s kiss awakens her, etc…” scenario, but nothing happens. In a very Frozen-esque way, however (even though the scripts may not have had deliberate crossover), Maleficent cries about her mistake with the curse and kisses her atop the forehead. Boom, there’s true love and Aurora awakens, quickly forgiving Maleficent because the script said so.
The climax of the scene arrives with King Stefan looking halfway between a British Medieval King and a Transformer from the new unnecessary sequel. While Maleficent is leading Aurora out of the castle, she falls into a trap with an iron net falling on top of her. Stefan emerges, looking absolutely ridiculous and the complete opposite of intimidating. Here the film diverges in an annoying fashion. Diaval is turned into the dragon, which in the film makes sense but it was annoying to not have Maleficent herself turn into one, or both of them for that matter. The dragon itself is rendered beautifully and the creature could stand proudly next to Smaug and the Ukrainian Ironbelly from Gringotts, which is saying something. Aurora meanwhile conveniently finds the room where Maleficent’s wings are stored. After a moment, the wings start to rumble loudly, and Aurora, realizing what they were and that her father had taken Maleficent’s wings from her, unleashes them. The wings fly to Maleficent just as she is about to fall to Stefan. Boom, there it is. Stefan and Maleficent have a Harry/Voldemort moment as they fly around the castle, landing on top of a tower. She decides not to kill him despite everything he’s done. In a typical move, Stefan doesn’t relent and he plummets to his death instead. Then we cut to a happy “in the moors moment”, where Aurora is inexplicably crowned queen of a reunified kingdom of humans and the moors. Well, that was news. It was an unnecessary line, and one thing that would have been a lot more logical would be “And now we can truly bring the two kingdoms together”, indicating there was still a ton of work to do and keeping the happy ending intact. Also, Aurora seems oddly indifferent to the whole “my father was evil and now he is dead” thing. But hey, she’s suddenly Queen, so there’s something.
Ultimately Maleficent is a missed opportunity whose shining segments point towards a film that would have been possible with a much, much more stronger focus on the story and not just the pretty visuals. There’s a very, very annoying narration that takes place throughout the entire run, Janet McTeer (who is fine) basically telling the audience what can clearly be seen on the screen. As a cinema-goer who has been going to films since 1999 on a regular basis, it is beyond excruciating when a film feels the need to narrate what I as a member of the audience can see happening. Wow, the moors are beautiful? I couldn’t tell. Stefan is an ass? That’s news to me. And you’re an older Aurora narrating the entire thing? That makes so much sense, right? It’s so obviously packaged it’s excruciatingly painful. Don’t tell me that Stefan is ambitious. The expression on his face when he talks about living in a barn makes that clear, he aspires to greater things and it’s obvious with that one piece of dialogue. Don’t throw it in my face. With a nearly $200 million price tag, Maleficent in some ways is like an expensive designer bag that ultimately performs the exact same function as a designer bag on sale but cuts deeper into your own pocket. It’s a beautiful film with a lead performance that is magnificent but it fails to stand firmly on its own. Angelina Jolie is absolutely wonderful in the role and it’s worth the price of admission for her alone, but she, and the audience, deserved a much better film.
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Robert Stromberg
Producer: Joe Roth
Screenplay by: Linda Woolverton
Based On: La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault and Little Briar Rose by The Brothers Grimm
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Brandon Thwaites
Narrated by: Janet McTeer
Music: James Newton Howard
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Editing: Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson
Studios: Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films
Distributers: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Dates: May 28, 2014 (United Kingdom), May 30, 2014 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Female First @ UK, Blogcritics, Disney Wiki, Page to Premiere, Fairy Tales News Blog @ Blogspot, We Geek Girls, Fanpop, Zimbio