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MALEFICENT Movie Review – Style (and Jolie) Over Substance

Not every villain or super-villain needs an origin story. Some villains are defined by what they do rather than their formative experiences before they became villains, but don’t tell that to studio executives in Hollywood. Ever eager to exploit whatever intellectual property they already own (a supposedly low-risk/high-reward proposition), Hollywood studios have exhaustively strip-mined classic stories for new material, up to and including “re-imaginings” that take different spins or perspectives on overly familiar stories or (fairy) tales. A new spin or perspective, however, guarantees nothing except superficial novelty. Moviegoers need look no further (if they intend to look at all) than Maleficent, Disney’s reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent makes Sleeping Beauty’s malevolent, horned villain both protagonist and hero. Unfortunately, it’s a misconceived attempt to leverage one of the more iconic characters in their IP (intellectual property) stable into a newly marketable commodity.

Despite a screenplay credited to Linda Woolverton – with an assist from John Lee Hancock, Charles Perrault’s 1697 short story, “La Belle au bois dormant,” and the screenwriting team behind Disney’s Sleeping Beauty ­– Maleficent flounders almost immediately under the dead weight of back story and exposition. It gives the title character played by Angelina Jolie, a winged, horned fairy (seemingly the only one of her kind) all the trauma necessary – courtesy of a life-changing betrayal at the hands and knife of the future king, Stefan (Sharlto Copley). Stefan, an impoverished thief and later the king’s personal valet/manservant, and Maleficent first meet when they’re children. She’s innocent to the brutal, violent ways of man (and boys) and even when her kingdom comes under attack by the soon-to-be-ex-king, Henry (Kenneth Cranham), she gives Stefan a blanket exemption due to their long-ago chaste romance. Stefan takes advantage of Maleficent’s trust, drugging and de-winging her (as close as Disney will ever get to a rape or sexual assault metaphor in an ostensible family film).

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When Maleficent, understandably bitter, disillusioned, and angry at Stefan’s betrayal learns that his wife, the queen, has given birth to a daughter, Aurora, she shows up unannounced and casts the now familiar curse: Aurora will fall into a death-like sleep (or vice versa) on her sixteenth birthday (due to a pin-prick from the spindle of a spinning wheel) and only a true love’s kiss sweetened can awaken Aurora from her semi-permanent slumber. It’s an escape clause Maleficent never expects Aurora or anyone else to activate. To save Aurora, Stefan sends her away to a cottage in the forest, appointing three tiresome, endlessly bickering pixies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) to act as custodians and guardians for the next sixteen years. As Maleficent watches Aurora grow into young adulthood (eventually played by Elle Fanning), her Grinch-like heart begins to thaw. She might look like a villain, she might dress like a villain and, on occasion, act like a villain, but she’s not a villain. She’s just misunderstood or rather she’s a villain in Stefan’s eyes, but a heroic avenger in her own.

Maleficent attempts to generate emotional resonance and/or poignancy through the depiction of the title character’s growing maternal feelings toward Aurora only succeed sporadically due to underwritten, perfunctory scenes. Even then, big-budget filmmaking necessitates that Maleficent’s attempts at emotional depth will be short-lived. Whether moviegoers want it or not, they’re going to get an action-packed third act, filled with violent conflict (but not too violent, given the rating), a fire-breathing dragon (one of the few non-human characters skillfully realized and executed), and a face-off between the hero and the villain (and vice versa). The “true love” sweetened kiss comes into play, of course, but not quite the way Perrault intended or the screenwriters’ behind Sleeping Beauty envisioned. It’s more pretext and prelude than climax, but you don’t build an entire film around a talented box-office draw without ensuring she’s front-and-center for the climax.

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Disney tapped two-time Academy Award Winner (Art Direction, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar) Robert Stromberg to helm Maleficent, a dubious choice, especially considering Stromberg’s status as a first-time director, not to mention Stromberg inadvertently taking the record for the largest budget for a first-time filmmaker, a record Stromberg nabbed from Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy. Too much of Maleficent’s fairy tale world closely resembles Stromberg’s previous work as an art director, including the background rock formations (Avatar) and the magical woodland creatures (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Creature designs tend toward the ugly and unattractive rather than the opposite. More importantly, so much of Maleficent looks and feels like it was shot in front of green screens (because it was) and poorly composited in post-production, an unwanted surprise given the amount of time and resources Stromberg had. The CG battles never rise above the generic. Then again, the word “generic” works as an accurate description of Maleficent’s production design and a narrative heavy on back story and reductive psychology and light on character development or depth.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.