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Movie Curiosities: Maleficent

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If I was an exec or a shareholder at Disney, I'd be thanking my lucky stars right now that the Mouse House bought Marvel. Their animated films and superhero movies, but the company's recent attempts at a live-action tentpole franchise have so far been laughably pathetic. And since the practice of adapting Disneyland rides has finally been tapped out, Disney has turned to live-action adaptations of their classic animated films. Kenneth Branagh is working on Cinderella for Disney to release next year, ditto for Jon Favreau's take on The Jungle Book. But first, Disney turned their attention to Sleeping Beauty, though this adaptation would be a little different. I'm honestly not sure if I've ever seen Sleeping Beauty. I don't remember anything about it firsthand, and my secondhand knowledge isn't exactly favorable. It's hard to care about a fairy tale in which the comatose princess and the bland hero are both so ineffectual that the whole plot has to be driven forward by three bickering fairies.

But then there's the villain.

Everything about Maleficent is evil perfection. Her demonic design is flawless. Her voice is an exquisite mix of beauty and power. She has a pet raven named Diablo and she turns into a fire-breathing dragon, for fuck's sake. She is truly the ultimate evil queen, amped up with all the most terrible black magic of Hell itself.

Maleficent isn't just Disney's greatest villain, she's easily one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time. She's a classic example of why it's so damn good to be bad, right up there with Darth Vader and Joker.

Hence we have Maleficent, a film in which the villain becomes the protagonist and we learn how the Mistress of All Evil came to be. This struck me as a very misguided move, aside from the inspired choice of casting Angelina Jolie. Making Maleficent into a sympathetic character, even for a little while, seemed to go entirely against the point of what made the character so great in the first place. Then again, appropriating the "Wicked" formula led to a slam dunk for Disney last year, so why not try it again?

Alas, this movie failed right out of the gate. The first act is flooded with useless and lazy voice-over (provided by Janet McTeer) narrating information that could have and should have been conveyed in a more compelling manner. Breaking the central rule of "show, don't tell" for a solid half-hour would be bad enough, but then we get into the plot.

See, the story concerns two neighboring kingdoms in an ongoing feud: The urban kingdom of humans and the forest realm of fairies. We first meet Maleficent when she's just a young fairy, played by Isobelle Molloy. She encounters a young human thief named Stefan and the two strike up a friendship.

Now, try and bear with me here. In one scene, Maleficent and Stefan are in true everlasting love. In the next scene, it's a decade later and Stefan is a backstabbing jerk. No, literally: He cuts off Maleficent's wings and presents them to the dying king so that Stefan can become heir to the throne. The transition from love to hatred happens that quickly, and it's facilitated by nothing but a few lines of voice-over narration to explain how Stefan lost himself to greed and ambition.

It's like an entire reel of film went missing, except that the film didn't need so much footage to make the heel-turn work. All it needed was one line of dialogue: The moment when Stefan took the crown, he could have made a proclamation to end the humans' war with the fairies, showing that he sacrificed his own love to take control and ensure that Maleficent would survive and there'd be no more killing. Boom, done. But no, the Maleficent/Stefan conflict -- the foundation of both characters' development and therefore the movie as a whole -- is built on this rotten foundation. Stefan is a douchebag, Maleficent is completely in the right, and that's all there is to it.

Which brings me to this movie's other major problem: Maleficent is the only character who's remotely capable of doing anything. Aurora (Elle Fanning) is pretty much entirely incapable of thinking or acting independently, but that at least comes with the story. Compare that to Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) who gets maybe five minutes of screen time to do precisely jack. Even the fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, and Juno Temple) spend every last second of their screen time fighting each other, to the point where they can't do a single damned thing.

In fact, the fairies are so hopelessly incompetent at raising Aurora that Maleficent has to do it herself. Yes, you read that right.

Maleficent is the one who cursed Aurora, and she's also the one who raised the princess. Because Aurora would have died well before her sixteenth birthday if left to the care of the fairies, and I'm not even exaggerating on that point. On the one hand, this leads to a rather amusing moment when Aurora calls Maleficent -- freaking Maleficent! -- her fairy godmother. On the other hand, it means that Maleficent starts to grow fond of Aurora and has to save her from the very spell she cast.

That's right: The rest of the characters are so incompetent that Maleficent has to play both sides, acting as hero and villain, because that's the only way the plot will move forward. It's a concept that might have worked if Maleficent had some compelling and mysterious inner conflict, such that we could never tell what she would eventually do. Instead, the character is so thoroughly defined in such broad strokes that we know exactly what she'll do and how the story will play out.

The problem isn't that we learn more about Maleficent. The problem is that we learn everything about Maleficent, and what we find isn't all that interesting. If this film started with Aurora's christening party and then slowly revealed the Maleficent/Stefan backstory in little clues, building up to their final confrontation at the climax, this might have worked. But as it is, there's no tension and no mystery. In a word, it's boring.

Though of course, it's not like the film is completely void of merit. Sure, Staunton, Manville, and Temple all come out looking like clowns, and Thwaites still doesn't look a thing like leading man material, but not all of the cast members succumb to godawful characters. Sharlto Copley is a great case in point; such an unrepentantly dickish basket case wouldn't have been nearly as interesting to watch in anyone else's hands. As for Aurora, the role doesn't really demand anything except a presence so charming and pure that no one can help but fall instantly in love with her. On those grounds, Fanning does just fine.

(Side note: Jolie's own daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, gets a brief but adorable scene as a young Aurora. Reportedly, she was only cast because they couldn't find another five-year-old blonde girl who wasn't visibly terrified of Jolie in full costume and makeup. I'd normally be more skeptical of claims that nepotism had nothing to do with casting, but in this case? Sure, I'll buy it.)

Then there's the matter of Diablo... Oh, I'm sorry, "Diaval." In this version, Maleficent's pet raven is transformed by magic into whatever animal she needs him to be in the moment. He's played in human form by Sam Riley, and I'm sorry to say that Diaval has far more personality in his animal forms than he does as a human. I should also add that in this movie, it's Diaval who turns into the dragon. Yes, Maleficent is not the dragon, Diablo/Diaval is. FAIL!!!

Regarding Maleficent herself, Jolie's performance is emblematic of the film's treatment of her character. On those occasions when Jolie plays the Maleficent we all know and fear, she has it nailed. When she plays the standard Maleficent in a new context (like the aforementioned "fairy godmother" exchange), she still plays it wonderfully. But when Jolie is called upon to play Maleficent as a lover, a victim, or a mother figure, it all falls apart.

Case in point: It's a huge scene when Maleficent loses her wings. Not only is she dealing with the physical pain of losing two limbs, but she also has to deal with the emotional trauma of betrayal by her lover and the knowledge that she'll never fly again. That's an overwhelming trauma to go through, and Jolie just can't sell it. I don't know if it's the direction or the acting, but that pivotal scene flat does not work.

Robert Stromberg makes his directing debut with this picture after winning a few Oscars for his visual effects work. Though I suspect that he "directed" this feature much like debut filmmaker Joseph Kosinski "directed" Tron: Legacy. It seems like Stromberg was only a figurehead for so many studio execs with no idea of what they wanted except a profitable film. But say what you will about Kosinski, at least he brought a unique and fascinating visual style to Tron.

Visually, this film looks quite serviceable, aside from some dodgy CGI here and there. In particular, the fairies look simply terrible. The problem, however, is that there's nothing here that wasn't already done and done better in Snow White and the Huntsman and Oz the Great and Powerful. And when a film aspires to the standard of those mediocrities, that's really saying something. Even worse, when Stromberg is called upon to bring some new stylistic flourish to the lackluster climax, the best he can do is "let's shoot a few scenes in blurry slow-motion for no reason!" That said, at least James Newton Howard turns in a suitably epic score.

Maleficent works better for trailers and merchandise than it does as a motion picture. Everything about the film feels superficial, like the PTB decided that if they had good visual effects and a solid lead actress, everything else would follow. And to be fair, the basic premise of Maleficent as a mysterious, tortured, conflicted protagonist was not unsalvageable; it just required more intelligence, creativity, and effort than the filmmakers were willing to expend. The result is pathetically lazy storytelling, more concerned with centering the film around Maleficent than improving on the source material in any appreciable way.

Once again, Disney aims for mediocrity and achieves its goal. Not recommended.

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