Directed by: Robert Stromberg
Written by: Bill Peet, Charles Perrault, Jacob Grimm, Joe Rinaldi, Linda Woolverton, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright, Ted Sears, Wilhelm Grimm, Winston Hibler
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Lesley Manville, Sharlto Copley
IN CINEMAS: now
RUNNING TIME: 97 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Maleficent is a fairy living in a peaceful forest kingdom whose safety is constantly threatened by Henry the king of the neighbouring land. As a child she meets and makes friends with Stefan, and their friendship grows over many years, but Stefan is one of Henry’s sons, and when Henry ordains that whoever kills Maleficent will succeed him, Stefan, though unable to slay her, removes Maleficent’s wings and takes them to his father, pretending that she is dead. Bent on revenge, Maleficent places a curse upon Stefan’s newborn infant Aurora, whereupon, at the age of 16, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an eternal sleep…..
I can never really decide whether Sleeping Beauty or Fantasia are the greatest of the Disney animated films, but considering Fantasia is in some ways not a ‘normal’ film at all, I’m going to go with Sleeping Beauty, to my mind the most perfect realisation of a fairy tale in animated cinema and perhaps even cinema itself. My heart immediately sunk when I heard back in 2009 that Disney were developing a remake, but this time from the point of view of the film’s iconic villain, definitely one of Disney’s most memorable baddies even to those not overly keen on the actual film. However, with a script written by Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King co-author Linda Woolverton, not to mention direction by one of the best filmmakers to come from the Pixar empire Brad Bird, there was a distinct chance that the result could actually be rather good. Then Bird lost interest and Tim Burton and David Yates were linked with the project until finally former production designer Robert Stromberg got the job and the film has now finally been made. You would think that the film also went through several scriptwriters considering the result, because it isn’t very good at all, and I exited the cinema wondering why they bothered…until silly me came up with the answer….MONEY!
Producer Joe Roth [Alice In Wonderland, Snow White And The Huntsman, Oz The Great And Powerful] likes to produce versions of well known stories which have been immortalised in previous films, and perhaps it’s no surprise that Disney likes doing this considering how immediately commercial the results are, but Maleficent is easily the weakest of the recent batch. The basic idea of telling the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of Maleficent is not a bad one – the musical Wicked pulled off a similar thing rather well – but Maleficent, before one goes into things like plot or acting, is fatally flawed by the fact that the Maleficent of this film just isn’t the Maleficent of the animated movie. She may look like her and take part in some scenes just like those in the older film, but she’s no longer the self-titled Mistress Of All Evil. Instead, she’s just another of those misunderstood, bullied outsiders who just wants to live in peace. Even when she places the curse on Aurora, she regrets it soon after and a few scenes later is feeding the baby. I was interested in seeing how the nasty Maleficent came to be and getting some idea of what she did. I wasn’t interested in seeing another moping emo type trying to get acceptance, but that’s pretty much what you get.
In fact, the film doesn’t even spend much time in setting up its title character’s transformation from friendly fairy to horned demon. The first few scenes quickly get us into the story, and the film is certainly technically strong right from the beginning, with the various denizens of Maleficent’s kingdom especially well realised, even if, with the exception of one beautiful night sequence, it’s not as good as the similar one in Snow White And The Huntsman. Early scenes of Maleficent and Stefan making friends are rather touching, but everything seems very rushed from the offset. You could probably make a half decent movie out of the first twenty minutes of Maleficent, and it would certainly be a whole lot better than the movie that we have here. Instead, we get a sense of a story more than an actual story, with lots of narration trying to pepper up cracks and a real feeling that both script and film have been hacked about. There were some late in-production reshoots, and some rewriting by John Lee Hancock, to get the early section of the film right, but Disney certainly didn’t succeed in their objective.
In any case, the film soon settles into being a remake of Sleeping Beauty, just with a different view point. It recreates many of that film’s scenes and situations, sometimes with variations, but because they were done so well in the other film, they just compare badly. A good example is the scene where Aurora goes to prick her finger, where the nightmarish Gothic set piece of the original film is turned into a more low-key scene which is okay on its own but seems bland and dull by comparison. Aurora still meets Prince Phillip in the forest, the three fairies guarding Aurora still destroy a cake etc, but many of these scenes are really brief and almost thrown away. Quite often, it seems like the filmmakers felt that they had to keep reminding viewers of Sleeping Beauty, but did it half-heartedly, yet considering they were on to a loser in the first place trying to reference such a masterpiece, they would have been better off ignoring the animated film altogether and going down different pathways. The opportunity was there for them to do that but they just didn’t take it up. Instead, they made a muddled compromise that seems confused about what to do with its story and especially its main character, who spends most of her time interacting with CGI creatures and skulking around.
“You’re my fairy godmother” says Aurora to Maleficent at one point, which may or not be a reference to Cinderella, but Fantasia’s ice dancing scene is certainly copied and a whole load of stuff from non-Disney movies like The Lord Of The Rings’ Ents. These tree-people actually look better than Jackson’s, and the special effects as a whole are very good indeed [also very well realised are the fairies and a dragon], but there’s little of that sense of wonder or magic essential to a film like this. There are a few reasonable action scenes, including the obligatory battle sequence, though they’re quite brief, and, considering how lacklustre the film is in many other ways, it could have done with some more. It’s not even that easy to care about Maleficent because Angelina Jolie, despite Rick Baker’s superlative makeup, delivers most of her lines as monologue and seems most bothered about how good she will look in a certain shot, director Robert Stromberg sure liking his silhouette shots. Compare her to, for instance, Susan Sarandon’s enacting of a similar role in Enchanted. Jolie still commands the screen and dominates everyone else, though Sam Rialy has some good moments as her beleaguered assistant Diaval. He and the fairies sometimes act as light relief [though the latter not so much as in the 1959 film], in a film which for much of the time tries to be a bit dark, but fails to have the courage of its convictions, especially in its ridiculous ending which really drives the stake into one of Disney’s greatest villains once and for all.
Aided by a huge marketing campaign of the kind that Matt Wavish was talking about in his article about the subject elsewhere on this website, Maleficent seems on course to becoming a major hit, which means that Disney will no doubt turn to another of their classics to ruin [there’s already talk about Beauty And The Beast]. I guess that, if you forget about its inspiration for a moment, Maleficent just about passes muster as family fare, albeit family fare that may not hold the attention of many kids judging by the showing I was at. It has a few strong points, like a rich, old-fashioned score by James Newton Howard [and thankfully Lana Del Ray’s destruction of Once Upon A Dream is saved for the end credits]. However, it’s also confused and dreary to the point of it seeming like most for the most part they didn’t try very hard, suffers from a complete lack of conviction, and is a bit of an insult to the 1959 film. If you listen carefully, you can probably hear Walt turning in his grave.