If Christopher Nolan’s take on The Joker isn’t the very best example of modern cinematic villainy, then it’s near the top of the list. Obviously, a tremendous amount of credit goes to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight, but I’d argue the real thrill comes from the character’s arbitrary, inexplicable approach to evil. By having its Joker invent tragic (fake) backstories on the spot, the film made a mockery out of the notion of having to explain a movie monster’s past. Disney’s Maleficent, on the other hand, is the latest misguided attempt to redeem a character who was better off being unredeemable.
“Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it.”
I still remember seeing 1959’s Sleeping Beauty on home video when I was very little. I’ve since re-watched the movie as an adult, but as a kid I honestly didn’t retain too much about the film beyond the basics: a princess falls into an eternal slumber after pricking her finger and is awakened by true love’s kiss. The one thing I remembered very clearly is how terrified I was of its villain.
Maleficent shows us how she came to place the deadly curse on Princess Aurora. The film opens with an extended prologue that establishes two separate and distinct worlds: there’s the human kingdom that is ruled by greed and malice, and the idyllic moors governed by fairies and other magical creatures. We first encounter Maleficent as a young fairy girl. She meets and falls in love with a human boy named Stefan, who vows to become king one day. The humans eventually wage war on their peaceful neighbors, and the ambitious Stefan (Sharlto Copley) makes a decision that ensures his seat on the throne but shatters his relationship with Maleficent (Angeline Jolie).
The movie’s most thrilling scene — the classic moment where Maleficent places the curse on infant Aurora — is also a perfect example of why this movie is so frustrating. On the plus column, Jolie effortlessly commands the (green)screen during the one sequence where Maleficent is deliciously and unrepentantly nasty. It’s no coincidence these are the five most fun minutes in Maleficent. The downside is the film completely misunderstands what made the character compelling. Here, Maleficent is reductively re-cast as a woman scorned; personally, I found her a lot more frightening and interesting when she was handing out death curses simply because nobody bothered to invite her to a party.
“So you see, this story is not quite the one you were told.”
The radical alteration extends to the rest of Maleficent. The film borrows elements from both the Disney animated film and, naturally, the original fairy tale. However, Maleficent most closely resembles Wicked, another revisionist tale that sought to rehabilitate the reputation of a green-skinned baddie. But whereas Gregory Maguire’s book — and, to a lesser extent, the wildly successful musical adaptation — sought to re-imagine every brick of L. Frank Baum’s Oz, Maleficent feels blandly superficial.
The film’s focus is strictly on eye candy. Maleficent is the directorial debut of Academy Award-winning production designer Robert Stromberg, who won Oscars for his work on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. His visual bona fides are on display immediately — especially if you catch Maleficent in IMAX 3D — as the title character soars through the enchanted moors. The director also conjures up a literal army of magical creatures, but none of them leave much of an impression. Stromberg has worked with the likes of James Cameron and Tim Burton, but is incapable of imprinting nearly as much personality on his CGI creations.
Stromberg fared better in transforming Maleficent’s crow sidekick into a loyal, shapeshifting servant (Sam Riley), even if the banter between the duo feels a bit forced. Speaking of forced, I’m not really sure why the director hired three good actresses — Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple — to play three characters as irritating as the clueless fairies who become Aurora’s guardians as she grows into a young princess. When they’re in fairy form, their squeaky voices and oddly-proportioned heads make them unpleasant to look at or listen to; in human form, they inevitably devolve into dumb slapstick. Either way, it was painful to watch. All the digital wizardry that went into creating such annoying characters is especially galling when you consider that the majority of Stromberg’s most interesting visuals come from the striking ways he chooses to frame his star.
Not surprisingly, the movie’s most effective special effect is Jolie. You may not have noticed this since the uber-famous actress is rarely out of the public eye, but Maleficent is Jolie’s first live-action film in four years. The actress remains as magnetic as ever, especially when she’s much better than the movie she’s starring in. As Maleficent, her cheeks have been accentuated to the point that they look sharp enough to cut her adversaries. (A nod to her animated forbearer.) But despite Jolie’s creepy appearance and the eerie trailers, the film seems to have been heavily influenced by its star/producer’s standing as the world’s most famous superstar mom. (Jolie has probably adopted another kid by the time you finish reading this sentence.)
This is most evident in the surprising connection between Maleficent and Aurora (Elle Fanning). While I’m enjoying Disney’s recent willingness to subvert the “true love’s first kiss” propaganda image it helped popularize in the first place, I wish the movie had more fully committed to its beautiful, dark, twisted fairy tale potential. I might feel differently if Fanning had gotten something to play beyond naïve, wide-eyed wonder opposite Jolie. Copley — who we first watched become gloriously unhinged in District 9 — fares a bit better, but he never feels like a serious (love or adversarial) match for Jolie.
It’s fitting because everything about Maleficent — a lavish production with all the resources in the world — is no match for the power of its star. With a reported $180 million budget, the film is an expensive reminder that Darth Vader became 80 percent less scary after we found out he used to look like this and this maybe some bad guys should stay that way.