The casting was always an obvious one. When word initially broke that Disney had intended to place the revisionist spotlight onto the greatest of their animated movie villains, Jolie’s name had discernible credentials. The sharp facial structure, the piercing eyes, the wicked vocal undercurrent and the smile that seemed as sharp as a blade – all such traits were a given in any casting of the notorious Maleficent, and the filmmakers got exactly what they sought when she signed onto the project. The utterly enthralling performance, I suspect, was just a bonus. How else does one explain the so-so enthusiasm demonstrated in a rather bi-polar screenplay? How else to account for the direction, which finds intrigue in the details but often pulls back before finding a cohesive rhythm for them? This is the kind of movie where ambitions are not universal amongst those working behind the scenes. Like last year’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” it doesn’t entirely realize the scope of the subjects it raises, yet seems to be content to just bask in the thrill of the moment, unbothered by the possibility of treading into deeper narrative waters.
Not that the shallow end is anything to dismiss here, either. The premise is a simple but fascinating one: contrary to the long-accepted rhetoric of fairy tale writers, the narrator informs us, the story of Aurora – the “sleeping beauty” – and her infamous curse was not as black and white as history would have you believe. What evolves from those remarks is a story of how a medieval kingdom, filled with good people and ruled by power-hungry totalitarians, declared all-out war on a neighboring society that lived behind a wall of trees. Dubbed “The Moors,” this peaceful domain of fairies is watched over by the strong and faithful Maleficent, whose piercing lime eyes and distinct horns make her seem, at a very young age, like something that just stepped out of a Jim Henson production. In those youthful years, both realms co-exist without any indication of political threat, but when old age – and a necessity to establish some kind of legacy – set in on a ruthless human king, he provokes a war that she and her band of earthbound guardians are only too eager to fight. Two drawbacks: 1) fairies are crippled by iron when it touches their skin; and 2) Maleficent’s own personal relationship with a young human boy named Stefan – which evolves into something more in the early scenes – may be an Achilles heel she does not notice until far too late.
The screenplay by Linda Woolverton inevitably uses these two handicaps to create a conflict seeped in betrayal and revenge, concepts which were of vague emphasis in source material that focused entirely on the purity of good in contrast with outright evil. For its first act, “Maleficent” falls in line with the original narrative quite accurately, and the added exposition between Maleficent and her human friend Stefan is sweet and good-natured, even though it does evolve into something tragic as a consequence of power struggles (the scene in which she discovers the loss of her wings is rather effective). The fallout comes to a head in a sequence that is staged almost exactly as it happened in the animated film – the scene when the young human princess is cursed to fall into a deathly sleep before her 16th birthday – but then the similarities between both narratives begin to fade, and the movie rewrites the journey. Some parts work well, others suggest glaring miscalculation. Stefan, a mere figure-head who wanted simply to protect those he loved, emerges here as cold and eager for vengeance. Aurora, always unaware of her curse and its final implications, grows into a vision of charming grace, and is more fascinated by this dark figure that watches over her instead of dreaming of love and happy endings. And Maleficent, so sure of her evil in “Sleeping Beauty,” watches on and observes her targets not with unwavering darkness, but with an undercurrent of pain that drives her to furious impulses.
Creating a sympathetic lead in the story of the “Sleeping Beauty” was obligatory in this era of psychological awareness, but few of the supporting players benefit in the translation. Sharlto Copley, for example, plays the Stefan role from a tone of psychotic overemphasis, replicating the approach he used in “District 9” and “Elysium” as if it were the only trick in the magician’s hat; he is grossly miscast for a movie that wants to address its conflicts to a youthful audience. Ditto to Aurora’s three fairy guardians; so infectious in the cartoon because of their charming nature as well as their comedic quirks, they get lost here behind a bizarre display of unfunny hijinks and clumsiness, and their little fairy figures – bodies created by CGI with digitized human faces pasted onto them – are relentlessly creepy. What did the three actresses in these roles think of their appearances when it came time to screen the final result? Did Imelda Staunton, a treasure of the cinema, find the execution suitable, or was she mortified by how sloppy the end result seemed? Such questions ran through my mind in between countless cringe-inducing moments, and words failed me when the dialogue was muttered through voices that seemed less fairy-ish and more like chipmunks possessed by demons.
The backdrops, on the other hand, are an impressive asset. So firmly dedicated to the cause of creating a vast space for the characters to thrive in, the production designers excel in building visuals that evoke the enchanting nature of fairy tales. Consider, for example, the kingdom of the fairies; seen from the perspective of an emotionally torn Maleficent both during joyous days and melancholy nights, there is a sense that the marshes, trees, mountains and beasts that populate the realm are more than just mere decorations, and the cinematography by Dean Semler frames them in wide establishing shots, allowing the camera to caress the details as he goes along. The problem therein comes down to this conundrum: where does the story go with all of these images once they have taken root? Nowhere very dynamic, I’m afraid. “Maleficent” possesses us for 97 minutes – a very brief duration for such an ambitious idea – and it rushes swiftly through many of its twists and climaxes without focus, as if to suggest they are all just bullet points on a to-do list. Maleficent herself is the greatest of all the Disney villains not because of her power or her relentless campaign against good, but because of the mystery she inspires in each stage of her agenda. There is no question that she deserves something richer than a momentary summer excursion.
And yet the final result is, I concede, still worth some notice – not just for of Jolie, who is radiant and almost ethereal in the lead, but also because there is certain pleasure in watching this material reveal so many new facets in unexpected ways. As shallow as some details are, the approach is relentlessly fascinating, and the joyous unity of the visual effects artists supply us with a world overflowing with inspiring visuals that go to the heart of this genre’s imagination and enthusiasm. Will the movie be remembered as fondly as its predecessor, one of the quintessential Disney animated features? I don’t suspect so. But hey, you gotta give a girl credit for this much: she does at least take us to some fascinating locales when supplied with a set of wings.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Fantasy/Adventure (US); 2014; Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images; Running Time: 97 Minutes
Angelina Jolie: Maleficent
Elle Fanning: Aurora
Sharlto Copley: Stefan
Lesley Manville: Flittle
Imelda Staunton: Knotgrass
Juno Temple: Thistletwit