Movie Review: Maleficent
With revisionist origin stories being all the rage these days, it was only a matter of time until one of Disney’s most iconic villainesses got hers. Although the end result fails to reach the same heights as, say, “Wicked,” most kids will be entertained.
Directed by long-time visual effects supervisor Robert Stromberg, “Maleficent” revisits 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” from the perspective of Angelina Jolie as the horned fairy who places a curse on Princess Aurora. After being viciously betrayed, Maleficent becomes driven by revenge, thereby kick-starting her supposed descent into villainy.
The story moves along at a brisk pace, which is as much a detriment to the film as it is an advantage. To its credit, the movie never lost my attention, as virtually every scene contributes to the overarching plot. Children, especially, will appreciate the relative lack of downtime.
Having said that, there is a ton of ground to cover, and “Maleficent” often feels more like a series of montages than it does an actual movie. Although following the plot throughout its 97-minute runtime is easy enough, finding a reason to care is not. Major character turning points – particularly those that occur toward the beginning of the film – are frequently glossed over by narrations.
To be fair, this is ultimately a family film, and the filmmakers may not have wanted to stretch the runtime longer than it needed to be. Perhaps the purpose of the narrations was to replicate the spirit of a classic fairy tale. Either way, the movie has a habit of telling rather than showing.
The strongest aspect of “Maleficent” is Jolie herself, who showcases a broader range of emotions than the rest of the cast combined. Much of the anti-hero’s arc revolves around learning to love again, as a prior betrayal has transformed her into a much more cynical creature. Unfortunately, that cynicism rarely equates to genuine villainy. Her only display of full-blown wickedness is during the reenactment of “Sleeping Beauty’s” infamous christening scene. Easily the most memorable part of the film, this sequence highlights Jolie’s knack for scenery-chewing malevolence. Had the script called for more of that, I would have been totally onboard.
The rest of the cast is comparatively weak, with Sharlto Copley being the lone exception as King Stefan. Channeling his role from last year’s “Elysium,” he brings a similar brand of uncomfortable mania to an otherwise underwritten character.
No one else is given much to do, though. Elle Fanning’s wide-eyed Aurora is one-note, while her trio of fairy godmothers is sort of the worst kind of comic relief. Sam Riley is serviceable with what little time he has on screen, as his character is more often a CGI raven.
Speaking of which, it’s made apparent that this director comes from a visual effects background from the opening shot. And though the locales feel appropriately otherworldly yet natural, many of the fantasy creatures look as though they were pulled straight out of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” So, yeah, they’re not the most tangible critters.
The film is mostly suitable for children, with the PG rating likely earned by the darker subject matter and a couple of grand-scale battles. I almost get the impression that Stromberg wanted the movie to be PG-13, but was restricted by this being a retelling of an animated Disney film.
Even as a family-friendly movie, though, “Maleficent” could have taken more chances with both its story and its central character. Add to that a mostly lackluster supporting cast, as well as narrations that speed through some of the more intriguing points in the story, and you have a film that sort of gets the job done, but little else.