Maleficent is one of those villain characters that I would say is not only the best Disney villain, but one of the best villains to come out of film history period. Sure her immediate motivation for her cursing Aurora was simply because she didn’t get an invitation to the christening celebration, but it was the sheer terrifying presence of the character that audiences would later see in characters like Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, etc. It doesn’t matter why they do what they, what matters is what they do and how they up the ante as the story progresses. The fact that she even turns into a dragon would be the mic drop for any comparison to other villains. To have Angelina Jolie play Maleficent in a live action film is perfect and the best casting choice I’ve seen in a very, very long time. With Walt Disney Pictures behind the film, how could this possibly go wrong?
Maleficent follows…well, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). She is apparently a human-like fairy (the only one for some reason), who lives in a magical land away from the rest of civilization. However, young Maleficent meets a man named Stefan (Sharlto Copley) who she develops a relationship with, but as he grows up his ambitions to rise in power within the kingdom corrupts him somehow (it’s very unclear; it’s just handwaved through some awkward narration, which appears throughout the film). So, when the King is defeated by Maleficent in a battle that was an attempt to take over the magical land, he says whoever kills Maleficent will have the crown when he passes. So, Stefan meets Maleficent, tricks her into drinking something that puts her to sleep where he then cuts off her wings (I don’t know what he gave her, or where it came from, but I have more to say on my Side Note). He uses the wings as proof that she’s dead, is later crowned King, Maleficent crashes the christening of Aurora (Elle Fanning), curses the child to die from the prick of a spinning wheel spindle (I’m sorry, not “die,” I believe the film refers to it as a “sleep-like death”) yada, yada, yada, you know the story, but this time, we see the story progress a bit differently, with this particular take focusing on Maleficent’s perspective.
Even though I wasn’t impressed by the trailers (except the one that mostly promoted Lana Del Rey’s rendition of Once Upon a Dream, which is brilliant by the way), I was rooting for this film. Angelina Jolie is perfect for the role, and even though the first time director, Robert Stromberg, was only known for his Oscar winning effects and design work for Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, he is working with a script by Linda Woolverton, writer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, while also doing some story work on Aladdin and Mulan (sure she wrote Tim Burton’s Alive in Wonderland, but that could have been a minor hiccup, a temporary setback of sorts). There is a lot of potential for this film to be something truly special.
Unfortunately, the film is bad, really, really, really bad. I’m not sure where to start. First off, I have no clue who this film is aimed towards. Is it for children or adults? There would be one scene where you’d follow the slapstick shenanigans of the three fairies (performed by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple), but then the next scene would be a dark and creepy look at King Stefan going insane while glaring at the torn wings of his former lover. The tone is all over the place. It doesn’t know if it wants to be light-hearted and whimsical, or dark and haunting. Which leads me to the script.
The screenplay is full of convenient and contrived scenes that occur simply so the film can keep going. There are plenty of moments where characters can do things to progress or reach their goals, but they either don’t do it or do so in the most haphazard and illogical way possible. For example, King Stefan knows since he first met Maleficent that iron is her weakness (?), but it’s not until far into his paranoia and Aurora’s hiding does he actually decide to have his men create iron weapons, chains, shields, etc. Maleficent’s magic powers are only useful when the script need it to be. For some reason, she turns her crow into a man (played by Sam Riley), though I’m not sure why since he is absolutely useless from a narrative standpoint. I guess for comedic relief, since there were a couple points where it seemed like the things he said were meant to be funny, but it doesn’t work at all. The sense of passing time is completely off, distances between different locations are poorly established and elements of the original Disney animation seemed to be shoehorned into the film for no real reason. The screenplay overall is terrible, oh and there’s a poorly executed “twist” that happens in the end of the film that I could only respond by saying Frozen did it better, much, much better.
Another thing the film suffers from is its direction, or at least its complete lack of one. It moves at an inconsistent, but mostly slow, pace that only gives you time to pick a part all the plot holes in the film. There is no real atmosphere in the film, mostly due to the tonal issues. The action scenes are ridiculously dull and annoying. I’ll try not to exaggerate, but it felt like every other shot in an action sequence had a crash zoom (in case you don’t know, a “crash zoom” is a very quick, and sudden zoom). It is absurd how often there is a crash zoom, and it never felt necessary, even in a way to enhance the action. It felt like a distraction, a way to trick us into thinking that what we’re watching is intense when it’s really poorly choreographed nonsense. Even the effects and production design, the background of the director, are lifeless, uninspired and unmemorable in almost every aspect. Why Robert Stromberg was chosen as the director apart from his connections I don’t know.
The biggest sin of the film is that it goes against everything that made Maleficent a fun and interesting character in the first place. Maleficent is evil personified; Maleficent do what Maleficent want, Maleficent don’t care. I admire the attempt to try and add more depth to her character, but not only is it not necessary, it doesn’t work. It’s the same problem that a lot of horror remakes make, where they try to give you a detailed backstory for the iconic villain, but the only make them less interesting and less fun because the filmmakers fail to understand why these characters stood the test of time. It sure doesn’t help that Maleficent’s motivation in the film is basically an act of revenge against what a man did to her. Does every female character’s motivation and drive have to be due to their relationship with men? It seems that the Maleficent we all know and love from Sleeping Beauty is nowhere near to be found in this film. I’m sorry to have to give away this very minor spoiler, but she never even turns into a dragon! What? What? I’m sorry, what?! That shot in the trailer where you see a dragon? That’s the crow. Yeah, she is captured by an iron chain net, she says “into a dragon,” and with the flick of the wrist, the crow turns into a dragon to save her. The only scene where Angelina Jolie actually gets to be Maleficent is during the christening scene that most of us have already seen in the trailer, but honestly, that scene is spectacular. Angelina Jolie knocks it out of the park, there’s a sense of atmosphere and intensity, the acting from everyone is fantastic, the effects are great, the music was spot-on; the scene is just so well done, which makes it so frustrating to see the rest of the film fall so flat.
Now that I finally mentioned a good element, I will say that there are some positives for the film, as few as they are. The acting is solid. Angelina Jolie, like I said, is great even though she barely gets to play the character the way she was meant to be played. Elle Fanning has consistently given good performances over the years, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Granted, Aurora was only meant to be a pretty face that everyone likes before being put to sleep, but Elle Fanning does a good enough job of making the character feel real and likeable. Sharlto Copley, while miscast, since his thick accent feels so out of place, does a fine job as King Stefan. Most of the actors deliver fine enough, but they are unfortunately constrained by a terrible screenplay that none of the actors, talented as they are, can escape. The cinematography by Dean Semler is solid, he gets a good amount of beautifully composed shots with some decent effects work, but he is also at the mercy of an inexperienced director. The only real shining spot is the fact that the film is thankfully kept short at a mere 97 minutes, unlike most blockbusters which have recently started to go over the two hour mark.
Disney really dropped the ball with Maleficent. Despite the film’s potential, it is butchered by a deadly combination of bad writing and bad directing. It’s a shame because you couldn’t have gotten anyone better to play Maleficent, yet the film not only dashes the opportunity, it trips, crashes and burns. And that’s despite how good Angelina Jolie is, even holding up well compared to Eleanor Audley’s performance from the original film. Lana Del Rey’s rendition of Once Upon a Dream has more atmosphere than the entirety of the film, and as it plays over the credits, you can’t help but feel you got cheated out of a much better film. The writing is trite, full of holes and is often lazy; the direction is practically nonexistent, making the film tone-deaf, poorly paced and a bore. I wanted to love this movie; I was hoping it would do justice to the character that gave me nightmares as a child, but the film failed on multiple levels, even as a standalone piece of fiction. Frankly, this film needs to get pricked by a spindle on a spinning wheel and die.
Side Note: OK, this film has some serious issue in regards to its subtext. There is no way I’m the only one to notice the genital mutilation and rape metaphor with Maleficent’s origin. It’s not particularly subtle, or well executed, but I’m just baffled that they went with that direction. It makes certain scenes extremely uncomfortable and downright disturbing, making the film not so much like Wicked for Sleeping Beauty, but more like a Disneyfied I Spit on Your Grave or They Call Her One Eye. The structure is basically like that of a rape-revenge film and I can’t for the life of me figure why they thought this was the best direction to go with. Or were the filmmakers even aware of it? Was it intentional? If it was, what does that say about Hollywood’s attitude towards female characters? I feel there’s a lot you can observe from the subtext in this film, but I have a feeling that none of it is good news.