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Review: Maleficent (2014)

Maleficent (2014)

Directed by: Robert Stromberg

Premise: A reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. In a fairytale land, a powerful fairy (Angelina Jolie) is betrayed by her human lover in his quest to become king (Sharlto Copley). She turns to the powers of darkness and places a curse on the king’s daughter (Elle Fanning).

What Works: There has been a trend in the fantasy genre over the past decade, but especially in the last few years, of reimagining classic fairytales and giving them a new, contemporary twist. The filmmakers of Shrek, Snow White and the Huntsman, Frozen, Oz the Great and Powerful, and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland have found box office success in bringing a new approach to familiar material, although their success at storytelling has been much more uneven. Maleficent is another entry in this trend and it is one of the better examples of fairytale revisionism. Much of its success has to do with the way in which the filmmakers return to their source and adapt the elements of Disney’s animated feature Sleeping Beauty. Viewers who are unfamiliar with that picture will be able to enjoy Maleficent but it’s worth taking the time to rescreen the 1959 film before viewing this version. The filmmakers of Maleficent clearly thought through the original picture and Disney fans will find a lot of smart riffs in this reimagining. Maleficent is also distinguished from other contemporary fantasy films in its humor. Many of the fantasy pictures following The Lord of the Rings have been extremely self-serious but Maleficent is a lot of fun with jokes that lighten the mood, humanize the characters, and alleviate the tone, making the serious moments more impactful. The best element of Maleficent is Angelina Jolie’s performance in the title role. Jolie has long been a commanding screen presence but her forays into fantasy films, such as Laura Croft: Tomb Raider and Beowulf, have often been unremarkable characters with Jolie playing one-dimensional femme fatales. As Maleficent, Jolie delivers a full performance and the script develops the character, transitioning her from a good fairy to an evil queen to a motherly caregiver.

What Doesn’t: As good as Jolie is as Maleficent, this film misses as many opportunities as it takes. Part of the problem is in the structure of the story. The movie is proportioned all wrong. Maleficent is about the title character’s corruption and redemption but it does not spend nearly enough time dramatizing her transformation from a good fairy and into a villainess. A lot of important moments are glossed over or explained to the audience through a voiceover that’s not very effective and a lazy storytelling tool. Maleficent’s problems are unique among Hollywood’s tent pole movies which are frequently too long. It’s nice is see a picture clocking in at just ninety-seven minutes, but Maleficent is concise to a fault. The filmmakers sacrifice dramatic build up and narrative clarity for brevity and because they don’t do enough to emphasize the relationship between Maleficent and the king, which is the crux of this story, the final confrontation isn’t nearly as impactful as it should be. Maleficent is also flawed in the way it deals with an evil character. When stories are centered on antiheroes, such as Richard III of William Shakespeare’s play, Dr. Lecter of Hannibal, or Walter White of Breaking Bad, the audience takes delight in the unrepentant villainy of the protagonist. In other cases, like Lucifer of Paradise Lost, Michael Corleone of The Godfather, or Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars, the character is tragic and is consumed and destroyed by his turn to evil. The filmmakers of Maleficent don’t seem to know which track they intend to take and split the difference. The result is a character who isn’t as delightfully evil nor quite as tragic as she ought to be and the film comes across as compromised, especially in its disingenuously happy ending.

Bottom Line: Maleficent is worth watching if only for Angelina Jolie’s performance. The filmmakers do thoughtfully revisit Sleeping Beauty but the movie is rushed and compromised. If additional footage exists, Maleficent might benefit from an extended cut.

Episode: # 494 (June 8, 2014)