Review: Maleficent

Maleficent tries to do for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz.  It strives to take a villain and reexamine her life, giving us context and an explanation for her actions and making us question our preconceptions.  Yet it lacks the grace and power of Wicked.  Maleficent is occasionally shockingly old-fashioned, it has a mediocre script and an inconsistent tone, and it trades one shallow villain for another while leaving few of the characters with any depth.  Yet Maleficent shines in spite of all that, defying expectations and rising above the things that might hold it back.  It’s truly more than the sum of its parts, and it owes any success it finds to its two charismatic lead actresses.

We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty, whether from the 1959 Disney animated film or the original fairy tale, about how the young princess Aurora was cursed by the evil Maleficent as a baby that she’ll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death, only to be woken by true love’s kiss.  Maleficent, however, starts long before Aurora’s birth, when Maleficent was a young girl faerie in the Moors, a magical land bordering and sharing an uneasy peace with a human kingdom.  One day she meets a young boy from the human world who had stolen a gem from the Moors, and in pardoning him she makes a friend.  As the two grow, they become friends and fall in love, but alas it’s not meant to be.  Stefan is ambitious, and when, after Maleficent and her army of tree warriors defeat the human king in battle, the king offers his throne to whoever avenges him Stefan betrays Maleficent, cutting her wings from her back and bringing them to the castle.  As a result of this betrayal, Maleficent surrounds the Moors with an impenetrable wall of thorns and proclaims herself ruler of her isolated land, turning it from happiness to darkness.

Stefan becomes king and, just like in the other stories, upon the christening of his daughter Maleficent shows up to curse the child.  The true love’s kiss solution is a cruel joke to Maleficent, as she doesn’t believe in the existence of true love, but the story progresses as we knew it would.  Aurora goes to live with three pixies in human form, who raise the child in an attempt to keep her safe (and away from spinning wheels).  However, Maleficent watches as the child grows and is surprised by her kind heart and her innocence.  As the girl becomes a teenager, this unlikely match of characters begin to bond, but as Aurora’s 16th birthday approaches and a young prince enters her life things come to a head, leaving everyone to grapple with their true feelings and motivations.  Many of the iconic moments we all associate with the story, from pricked fingers to sleeping kisses to fire-breathing dragons make an appearance, but this time around nothing is quite what  you’d expect.

Maleficent is very pretty to look at, with expansive, painterly vistas and some solid visual effects.  Of course, that’s to be expected from first time director Robert Stromberg, who made a name for himself as the production designer on films like AvatarAlice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful.  The look of the film isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s still expertly crafted if not as creative as one might have hoped.  The costuming (particularly for Maleficent and Aurora) is also deserving of a shout-out, as is James Newton Howard’s score.  The film has a solid supporting cast, including Sharlto Copley as king Stefan, and Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville as the pixies who raise Aurora.  Brenton Thwaites doesn’t have much to do other than look charming as prince Phillip, but Sam Riley makes the most out of his moments onscreen as Diaval, a raven rescued by Maleficent and turned into a human servant by her.

However, unfortunately, most of these actors aren’t given much to work with.  Stefan, in particular, is almost as one-dimensional a villain as Maleficent was in the original film, a slave to ambition and fear who doesn’t seem to have a reason for his motivations.  The pixies mainly exist to add some slapstick humor to the film, I suppose to appeal to children, but they mostly come off as grating and annoying.  The film’s tone is more than a little all over the place, with the darkness that was seemingly the movie’s goal interrupted by goofy scenes that feel out of place or shoehorned in in an attempt to keep things from going too dark.  In that way, the movie almost feels like a contemporary of the animated version, which also jumped back and forth between dark moments of drama and silly moments of humor in a way that is less than appealing to modern audiences.  The script in general is lacking polish, which is a shame because Linda Woolverton, who wrote the screenplay, has proven that she is capable of so much more with films like Beauty and the BeastThe Lion King and Alice in Wonderland.  So why, if the film has all of these problems, do I say that it shines?

The answer is simple: Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning.  The person who cast this pair deserves a promotion.  Obviously, Jolie has a long and successful track record in Hollywood, with an Oscar and a variety of films in a variety of genres to her name, and Fanning has proven herself in recent films like Super 8 to be a rising star worthy of attention.  Beyond that, however, they are both perfectly cast for their roles.  Jolie commands the screen whenever she’s on it, chewing the scenery in a way that’s appropriately dramatic for someone with giant horns rising from her head and expansive black wings.  But it’s the moments in between that are here best, as she watches Aurora grow and reevaluates her opinion of this innocent child whom she has punished for her father’s sins.  Generally speaking, Aurora is not nearly as complex a character as Maleficent, yet the way Fanning plays her you’d never know.  Aurora is all innocence and light, more of a symbol than a character, but Fanning fills in all of the gaps between lines of dialogue, bringing an authenticity that other actresses her age could never dream of.  In ever smile and movement, Fanning sells the reality of what we’re watching, allowing the complexities of Maleficent to feel genuine rather than forced.  Together their interactions and relationship feels completely natural despite the fantastical setting and mediocre script, and the pair says more with a look, a gesture and an expression than any screenwriter could ever communicate with pages of dialogue.

Jolie and Fanning wrest the vision of the film away from those behind the scenes and make it their own, and what they contribute to the film far outweighs any other aspect of its production.  While casting can certainly ruin an otherwise solid film, it’s rare that casting elevates the material beyond what it would otherwise have been capable of.  The visual effects of Maleficent’s magic are more impressive because of Jolie’s performance, the dialogue is deeper and richer when spoken by her and Fanning, and even the twist ending, which was touching but predictable, works perfectly because these actresses are behind it.  The action is more exciting, the drama is more involving, and the film succeeds simply because they make it succeed.  I went into Maleficent with tempered expectations, knowing that the imagery of the film might be impressive but worrying that they’d be unable to find a compelling story to tell from the one we already know, an expectation I admit was partially shaped by advance reviews I’d read.  However, I could not have anticipated how engrossing and engaging the film would be, or that I would connect to it so much.  Some movies seemingly have all of the right pieces, a great script, the right actors, perfect director, yet fail for reasons that are hard to articulate.  Other films operate in reverse, succeed where they should have failed for equally mysterious reasons.  There’s no doubt with Maleficent, however, as the key piece of the puzzle was put in place by Jolie and Fanning, a piece so strong that it raises the rest of the film to new heights, as if carried there by a faerie’s wings.

A

18 thoughts on “Review: Maleficent

  1. As ever, interesting insights.

    I suppose I don’t actually pay much attention to plot … I tend to be moved, to relate to films/stories/books, by their visuals and characters and emotions. And, as you note, the actors here are well cast, and bring depth to characters that are faerie tale archetypes bordering (in some instances) on stereotype. I feel like the entire tale was told in broad strokes, in a sort of oral faerie tale style perhaps (like the Hobbit book, which I liked but not nearly as much as the epicness of LOTR).

    There are certain actors (Liam Neeson comes to mind) that you can drop into the worst pile of barnyard doo-dah ever, and it won’t stick to them, and they will actually cause the rest of the tale to shine. Angelina Jolie is also one of these (though I see little doo-dah in this film).

    I think, as in Frozen, the real story, the real conflict/interaction is between Aurora and Maleficent. The rest is stage backdrop. “Fanning sells the reality of what we’re watching, allowing the complexities of Maleficent to feel genuine rather than forced. Together their interactions and relationship feels completely natural despite the fantastical setting and mediocre script, and the pair says more with a look, a gesture and an expression than any screenwriter could ever communicate with pages of dialogue.” Well said indeed.

    Raven Boy. I have one of those in my own story cycle, and am particularly fond of corvids, so … yeah. Cool.

    Like many simple-on-the-surface tales, this one has some undercurrents that run deep. But I’ll have to blog about that later.

    Blog on!

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    • You’re right that the story was definitely told in broad strokes, which I think helped Jolie and Fanning to stand out even more.
      I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about Diaval, but I really enjoyed him as a character. You’re right when you point out that he didn’t want to turn into a wolf because he’d been saved by dogs, which I hadn’t picked up on.

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  2. Another nice balanced review that I agree with. I am really glad to see some recognition for Elle Fanning because she has been written off as giggly and vapid in a lot of the reviews I’ve read but I think she does a great job with a deceptively hard part. More on that in my review which will go up today.

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    • I feel like the people who dismissed Fanning’s performance weren’t really paying attention. You’re right to say that she had a deceptively hard part, and I think she did extremely well in an unappreciated role. She made me care about Aurora, where a lesser actress would have just coasted through and not gotten such a strong response.

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