May 30, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Maleficent”


MALEFICENT:  Watch It At Home – Only Jolie Casts a Spell

The conflicting agendas driving the new MALEFICENT don’t leave much room for the movie itself.  Like Wicked and Once Upon A Time, it’s a revisionist fairy tale, specifically one that casts a sympathetic, proto-feminist eye on an iconic evil sorceress.  But it’s also a $175M (not counting marketing costs) Disney tentpole epic, which weighs it down with special effects and unnecessary action sequences–even at a mere 98 minutes, practically a short subject compared to the 135-minutes plus of other summer spectacles, Maleficent feels slow and burdened.  And, of course, it’s a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, her first since Salt 4 years ago.

That last is the one that makes Maleficent worthwhile.  Jolie has always had an air of the otherworldly about her; even when she’s given serious, diligent performances in films like The Changeling, her glamor has barely been contained by her drab surroundings.   As an action star, her style been completely different from Jennifer Lawrence’s relatively grounded physical authority–Jolie is the more convincingly super-human even when Lawrence is playing a blue-skinned mutant.  With her already famous cheekbones augmented by impossibly high, sharp prosthetics and what seem to be satin-covered horns on her head (not to mention enormous, graceful CG wings at times), Jolie is an ideal Maleficent, effortlessly powerful and sleek, and not without a streak of mordant, queenly humor.  (Her deadpan horror when Sleeping Beauty mistakes her for a fairy godmother is priceless.)

In this telling, written by Linda Wolverton (whose history with Disney goes back to Beauty & the Beast in 1991, although she also worked on the uneven script for the Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland), Maleficent is a young, powerful fairy who makes the mistake of falling for the greedy human Stefan (Sharlto Copley, unable to figure out what to do with the role).  He steals her wings in order to become king of the neighboring humans, and her revenge is to curse his baby daughter Aurora (who at one point is played by Jolie’s own daughter with Brad Pitt, Vivienne, and who eventually grows into the marvelous Elle Fanning).  The curse itself seems oddly specific in this context:  why would magical woodland Maleficent have a fixation on spinning wheels?  But in any case–16th birthday, finger pricked, deathly sleep, true love’s kiss, yadda yadda.

It’s here that Maleficent breaks away from its Sleeping Beauty roots.  Stefan sends Aurora away to be cared for by a trio of pixies (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple, all adorably CG-miniaturized) and kept away from spinning wheels until she’s 16 plus a day, but Maleficent keeps watch over her, and over the course of time, her heart opens to the guileless, loving girl.  The movie is so intent on redeeming Maleficent that it has her try to recant the spell halfway through the story, and ultimately provide the cure.  (Unfortunately, even though this script was probably written first, Once Upon A Time already got there with the same spin on “true love’s kiss”.)  Her war with Stefan’s armies is forced upon her.  Since Stefan is a flat villain, there’s remarkably little dramatic conflict remaining in the story.

Maleficent can’t begin to effectively balance its elements.  The director, Robert Stromberg, has been a production and special effects designer until now (his films include Alice, Avatar and Oz: The Great and Powerful), and he doesn’t pace the movie well, or find moments for the characters to deepen.  The action scenes are slack, and although Jolie and Fanning are self-starters, Fanning doesn’t get nearly enough to do except glow with youthful purity of heart, and Stromberg doesn’t give anything to Copley, or to Sam Riley as Maleficent’s henchman (and often hench-bird) Diaval, or Brenton Thwaites as the local charming prince.  And yet sometimes Stromberg comes up with images that stay with you, fairy tale that illustrations come to life like Maleficent matter-of-factly walking through the enchanted forest (called the Moors here) with the suspended, unconscious body of Aurora floating after her, or the gnarled wall of trees that Maleficent erects to keep the humans away.

Somewhat surprisingly for a film directed by a visual artist (although last-minute deadlines are endemic with tentpole movies like this), the CG effects are variable in quality, some of the Moors characters looking oddly like refugees from H.R.Pufnstuf.  The cinematography by Dean Semler is expensively high-toned, and the production design (by Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman) and costume design (by Anna B. Sheppard) make expressive use of colors and motifs that refer back to the Disney animated Sleeping Beauty.

With Jolie and Fanning in the leads, Maleficent could have been a classic, and it isn’t.  The movie delivers its revisionist message clearly enough (presumably it’s OK that the men in the film are virtually all depicted as evil or useless) along with a full helping of overstuffed visuals.  It makes its way to a happily-ever-after that will please undemanding ticketbuyers and Disney shareholders, but without taking full advantage of  all that it had to offer.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."