Film Review: Maleficent 

Disney manages to make a beloved fairy tale boring and trite.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO.
  • Courtesy photo.

Maleficent | C+

It’s hard to decide whether to praise Maleficent for having some subversive and daring feminist thoughts in its tragically Disney-addled brain, or ridicule it for cravenly choosing commercial over artistic instincts at nearly every turn.

You get the feeling that somewhere along the line, Linda Woolverton’s script may have had real revisionist vision. Of course, I have no proof of that. Woolverton did pen Tim Burton’s clattering, moronic yet highly successful Alice in Wonderland. And it too had brief flashes of feminist muscle flexing beneath the scenery-chewing cast and insistent whimsy. But I’d like to think that Angelina Jolie signed on believing that Maleficent would offer something more than yet another male-driven fantasy vehicle that ejaculates overproduced special effects onto the screen.

Unfortunately, that’s much of what Disney seems to want. While it’s not nearly the cruel betrayal Oz: The Great And Powerful was to Frank L. Baum’s feminist ideology, this revisionist spin on 1959’s Sleeping Beauty rushes through the emotional and psychological arc of Disney’s iconic villain (which was supposedly the whole point of the film) in order to indulge in pointless battles and overstuffed production design.

But what else did you expect from a first-time director whose background is in special effects and production design? With credits on the aforementioned Oz and Alice, as well as Avatar (among many, many others), director Robert Stromberg clearly understands visual spectacle … and almost nothing else. His narrative sense is disjointed and indecisive, presenting less a coherent story and more a series of sewn-together set pieces. Bouncing incoherently from action to fable to Maleficent’s fractured character arc, he demonstrates no authorial artistry, character insight or patience, and instead seems intent on getting to the next fantastical image — which, truth be told, seems more like garish riffs on his previous work.

Worse, Stromberg seems blind to the best visual effect in his movie, namely the commanding Jolie. Every moment she’s on screen, the actress dominates (even with CG-enhanced cheekbones and horns), purring with sarcasm, seething with fury, and, in the end, struggling with love and remorse. Woolverton’s character creation reaches for Gregory Maguire’ Wicked style, rethinking of the classic villain, turning Maleficent into the Grimm’s Fairy Tale version of Ms. 45.

Once a gentle and sweet-natured fairy, young Maleficent falls for a human boy named Stefan and later ends up betrayed by his adult ambitions. With eyes on the crown, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) drugs the trusting fairy queen and cuts off her wings. It’s a rather bold metaphor for date rape when one considers the studio behind the project, further enhanced by Jolie’s personal efforts against the practice of female genital mutilation. This sets the stage for what I hoped would be a compelling character portrait.

Unfortunately, after its exposition-heavy first act, Stromberg’s moviefollows the story beats of Sleeping Beauty, but flips the script. The good characters are now shallow, spiteful and stupid, while Jolie’s dark fairy works her magic from the sidelines, keeping Aurora (Elle Fanning) safe — mostly from a trio of bickering, negligent “good” fairies — until she pricks her finger at 16 and falls into an enchanted coma. And, unlike Wicked, Woolverton’s take never has the conviction to make Maleficent’s vengeful fury live up to her name. Instead of a woman who must find a way back from her more villainous impulses, she’s merely a wounded and misunderstood do-gooder who momentarily lashed out in anger.

Maleficent’s initial wrath and then 16-year thaw of heart could have made for a emotionally rich examination of survivorhood, male vanity, forgiveness, and the complexities of maternal love — had Disney invested in the relationship that develops between Aurora and her. There would have still been plenty of time for giant thorn bushes, tree warriors and fire-breathing dragons — especially if the unfunny Three Stooges routines Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesely Manville are forced to do as caretaker fairies were cut back.

Fairy tales are ripe ground for metaphorical discovery. Hollywood blockbusters don’t have to be mind-numbingly similar in their bombast. There is a smart and entertaining middle ground to be won, as some of Pixar’s films have proven in the past. While Disney seems to understand that girl power can mean big box office (see Frozen), they still seem unable to fashion female characters that boast true complexity, agency, and independence.

Maleficentis now playing in wide release. It’s rated PG and has a running time of 97 minutes.

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