Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Movie Review: Maleficent

Directed by:  Robert Stromberg.
Written by:  Linda Woolverton based on the story by Charles Perrault and the story by Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm and the screenplay by Erdman Penner & Joe Rinaldi & Winston Hibler & Bill Peet & Ted Sears & Ralph Wright & Milt Banta.
Starring: Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Elle Fanning (Aurora), Sharlto Copley (Stefan), Lesley Manville (Flittle), Imelda Staunton (Knotgrass), Juno Temple (Thistletwit), Sam Riley (Diaval), Brenton Thwaites (Prince Phillip), Kenneth Cranham (King Henry), Isobelle Molloy (Young Maleficent), Michael Higgins (Young Stefan).

Maleficent is one of those movies that is good enough that you wish it was just a little bit better. There is a lot to like about Disney’s new movie, which looks at the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of its villain – and almost all of it has to do with Angelina Jolie. Her performance finds her in full movie star mode – and helps to make the case of why we still need movie stars, even while so many people seem to be writing them off. There is a scene of shocking brutality and power in the movie – which will likely stand as one of the most memorable of the year. Yet, surrounding Jolie and that scene is too much crap – too much heavy, CGI imagery that does nothing to distinguish itself from the CGI imagery we saw at the movies last weekend, or what we’ll likely see next weekend. The story kind of sputters and stalls – it doesn’t really have anywhere to go. The ending is one of those Disney cop-outs – that punishes the wicked, while letting the hero retain their moral superiority to them. I wanted to like Maleficent more than I ultimately did – if for no other reason, than I kind of admire Disney’s willingness to try and make movies aimed at children centered on strong female characters, after decades of making movies aimed at children with passive female characters – none more so than the original Sleeping Beauty.

The movie begins with Maleficent as a young fairy – living a peaceful, happy life in the Moors. It’s there that she meets a peasant boy – Stefan – and the two develop a friendship that grows into love over the years. Stefan has grand ambitions – he wants to be King – but as an orphan he has no chance of that. The current King is Henry – and he wants to invade the Moors, and take the treasures there for his kingdom. Maleficent doesn’t allow that – a huge, CGI laden mess of a battle happens, with Maleficent and her backing of mystical creatures winning quite easily. Henry, now close to death, say he will give his crown – and his daughter’s hand in marriage – to anyone who can kill Maleficent. Stefan, a servant, overhears this and hatches a plan to get what he wants.

It’s here where the movie’s most shocking – and best sequence – takes place. A scene with obvious overtones of sexual assault and violation – and scene that leaves Maleficent shocked, alone, violated and deformed. The scene is well handled by director Robert Stromberg – one of the few moments of subtlety he displays in the whole movie (there have been reports of reshoots by John Lee Hancock, and given how much better this sequence is than the rest of the movie, one has to wonder if this is one of things he reshot). Stefan’s betrayal has, to some, seemed like it’s too abrupt – that it comes out of nowhere, but I think that works for the movie – making the movie all the more shocking. It’s impossible to watch this sequence and not think of rape and its traumatic effect on its victims – which puts everything Maleficent, does after that in a new light. It’s the best work Jolie does in the movie – as she, and sequence itself, walks the fine line between being scary and traumatic enough to have an impact, but not so much so that it will send the young fans in the audience running from the exits. It’s a shocking, and brilliant sequence.

The movie doesn’t come close to matching that sequence at any other time in the movie however. Jolie is always wonderful to watch in the movie however – her big castle sequence, where she curses baby Aurora proves that had Disney wanted to make a straight up version of Sleeping Beauty, with Maleficent as a sneering villain, she would have been more than up to the task. With her impossibly high cheek bones, she seems otherworldly, and though the screenplay constrains her, she gives a complex performance that gets at a lot of issues of being a woman.

Nothing else in the movie really works though. Sharlto Copley as Stefan is basically stuck becoming a paranoid madman, with no hint of complexity. Elle Fanning has to sit around and smile and giggle as Aurora – I would have preferred a little bit of complexity to her character, and Fanning is a good enough actress that she could have provided it if given the chance. The three fairies – played by talented actresses Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple – are similarly stuck in one note, comic relief roles. Sam Riley looks lost as the human version of Maleficent’s raven sidekick. The film’s action sequence are CGI laden messes – with a lot of swooping, swirling and fast cutting that simply makes everything confusing. The ending tries too hard to punish the wicked, while keeping our main characters hand’s clean.

In the end, Maleficent is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough. There is a great idea at its core, and at times it hints at the movie it could have been had Disney followed through and made it a truly feminist fairy tale. But in the end, Disney seems to want to make something a little bit safer. It ranks as a disappointment, because this could have been a great movie, but the film itself comes up quite short of its goal.

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