Director: Robert Stromberg
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Plot: In a land separated by two kingdoms, one of magic and wonder, the other presided over by a cruel king, a friendship between a fairy guardian and a farmer’s boy blossoms. However, when she is betrayed by the farmer boy, the fairy turns into the cruel and vengeful, Maleficent (Jolie).
God, I have missed Angelina Jolie. I have no idea why, but she always get a bad rap in the press. This has led to claims that she is overrated and praise for her talents as an actress are unfounded. Personally, I have never been any less than captivated by Jolie’s power as a performer. Her early work is amazing to behold, Jolie always putting everything she has into her roles. Her later work could be described as weaker (the last time we saw her was in the forgettable, Tourist), but Maleficent is a true return to form. Angelina Jolie takes the persona of Maleficent, one of the evillest creations of Walt Disney, and runs with it. Taking a beloved character from an animated film and trying to incorporate their presence into a live action movie rarely works, but Jolie can join the proud list of actors who have accomplished this (Glenn Close’s Cruella DeVille springs to mind). She embodies every trait and mannerism we remember from the classic 1959 version. On top of that, she adds the depth and emotion that Stromberg requires to make his vision of this new and improved take on Sleepy Beauty as powerful as he wants it to be.
It’s a shame that nothing else really matches Jolie in terms of the wow factor. Maleficent is a nice idea, but Stromberg seems to flounder about, rather than grab hold of any direction, almost as though his script never made it past a first draft. The origin side of things is poorly done, which is a shame, as this is the key thing that audiences turned up for. Stromberg rushes to the start of the traditional fairy tale, clambering past moments that should have emotional impact, but he doesn’t think of letting these scenes breathe. Angelina Jolie tries to work with the moment of total betrayal, but Stromberg asks her to look betrayed briefly and then moves on. In the next scene, she has leapt to the darker Maleficent we remember, character development be damned. We understand why she is the evil person she is, but we want more. We turned up to see her slow corruption, yet Stromberg is too focused on his final set-pieces to consider enjoying the journey to the finish line. The rest of the movie is a jumbled mess, with Maleficent bonding with Princess Aurora, her character never truly reaching the dark queen she is in the original cartoon, except for a brief scene. The final battle would have been much more powerful, if we believed that Maleficent’s return to the good side was some form of struggle. Yes, there are some fun set-pieces and watching it in 3D was beautiful at times, but when the core of the story, Maleficent’s character arc, is mishandled, watching this movie turns in a bit of a waste of time.
The biggest flaw here is that it didn’t feel like a reworking of Sleeping Beauty to me; it felt like a whole new fairy tale in itself. A stronger movie would have been one that spent longer on the origin of Maleficent. King Stefan never makes an impression, because we never understand his character arc. How can Stromberg convince us that there is more to the big villain of Sleeping Beauty, when he doesn’t explain his own choice of bad guy? When we did hit the original Fairy tale, more should have been done to echo it. The narrator to this story claims that our version of the story was grounded in half-truths, but I wanted to see the well-known Sleeping Beauty story unfold exactly how it should do. There would have been something beautifully tragic about Maleficent meeting her demise, when we are aware of her troubled history. Telling the story more straight-faced would have also given Stromberg’s script some much needed focus. Some might doubt this train of thought, but as evidence for my vision, I present the best scene of the film: Maleficent gate-crashing Aurora’s christening, played exactly how it was originally told in the 1959 version, except with this new context thrown into the pot. That one scene was exactly how I wanted the entire movie to turn out.
Despite my grievances, I imagine this movie would work well for the kids. I have a friend who has a cluster of daughters, who are all into fairy princesses. They would love this movie. I also like how Maleficent has a place in modern storytelling. Rather than having a set villain, Stromberg’s take on Maleficent asks us to question evil. Maleficent is more than a spiteful ‘beastie’; she has her own story that corrupted her into who she is. Aurora’s ancestors could be described as the true enemies, asking audiences to look at their own history, before judging the supposed villains. We could draw comparisons between Maleficent and terrorists, dictators in other countries. A lot of political problems would be solved easier if we tried to understand ‘why’, rather than assuming our enemies are evil. It also depicts regret on Maleficent’s part: she acted harshly cursing Aurora and it is too late to undo what she has done (again, this would have been made clearer if the movie followed the original story). Maleficent could have been a great modern fairy tale, but with little more than some pretty CGI that will look old hat in five years time, Maleficent will quickly fade into obscurity.
Final Verdict: Angelina Jolie is incredible. Everything else is forgettable. Stromberg’s movie sounded good, but in reality, it lacks a strong focus.