This was a good show to the families in my showing, they were clapping when Lana Del Rey starts her singing. I, however, felt like I’ve just watched Snow White and the Huntsman again, wondering about all the potential it could’ve reached. And that is the real evil here.
After the disaster that was Eragon, also helmed by a talented person in the visual department of films, I fear for Maleficent when Robert Stromberg is announced as director. And I was right to fear. Despite its promise, the whole film is a set-up for frames with style instead of story, crowding the eyes with otherworldly landscapes, creatures, colors and magic. Having two Oscars under his belt, for Avatar and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, no doubt the effects look good, crazy good sometimes, but they didn’t make me feel like that. I don’t know if it’s him or orders from the top that implement the hasty editing at key dramatic scenes, either choppy cuts or slight fast-forwarding. If it’s Stromberg, then there’s still much to learn. If it’s his superiors, well, that’s a different story.
The screenplay from Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) does little in assisting the film. What the go-to writer for Disney does well is fusing the movie with a message worth talking about, one that puts forth more realistic spins on what fairy tales say about the idea of and one’s understanding about love. Some might say this is a borrowed move from Frozen, but I’m still glad to see it again. The same can be said for those nice little weaves to the 1959 telling. Nevertheless, the film’s core and purpose – delving into the titular character’s psychology – is very bare, obviously stated but not really explored. The PG-rating might have something to do with this, however, allowing the presence of darkness to be felt but can’t afford to have it be menacing. I’m not asking for a Disney film to be a complex character study but I do believe it can be made interesting.
On the subject of obviousness, Maleficent takes a couple of steps to make sure we, the audience, “get it”. The first is the narration, nicely voiced by Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) yet ultimately unnecessary. It grabs our attention by being obtrusive rather than helpful, seeing how the film could’ve shown them in more creative and, definitely, beautiful ways. The handling of any character that isn’t Maleficent is the second one. Everybody else seems to be written in a very simple manner, their intentions muddling and bland level of characterization to highlight Maleficent’s more-than-meets-the-eye nature. King Stefan (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), the raven Diaval (Byzantium’s Sam Riley) and the three fairies (Harry Potter’s Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake’s Lesley Manville and The Dark Knight Rises’s Juno Temple) all receive this treatment, too rushed turning bad, there to translate feelings and putting on a show of incompetency, respectively.
While I’m most mad at the approach to the fairies, considering their clumsiness back then was light-hearted instead of grating (and I doubt younger viewers will even find them funny either), there is one detail that will definitely upset purists of the animated film: Maleficent herself. By the end of the film, some will realize they have changed, instead of adding another layer on, the character. A fresh set of eyes might be needed, and there’s a chance you might find it good if you can get past the flaws in direction, writing and editing.
The acting, on the other hand, is astounding. With rawness and ever-present sexiness, Angelina Jolie is perfect as Maleficent. You can’t help but be attracted to the screen. If anything, she’s the magic of this film, showing a lot without saying much (and it’s good until Diaval assumes his role). There has also been much doubt after Elle Fanning (Super 8) is chosen to be Princess Aurora… well, cast them aside because a beautiful smile and pure innocence have made her fitting here. Other elements, though expected, are welcome here as well – including a suitably elegant score from James Newton Howard (The Hunger Games), top-notch color-popping cinematography from Dean Semler (Apocalypto) and stellar designs both real and computerized.
Putting the “evil isn’t born, but made” twist on one of Disney’s most iconic villains is a fantastic idea – unfortunately this is where the good news ends. Though Maleficent won’t be a total waste of your time, it’s frustrating seeing the film chooses to be passable rather than remarkable. Families will definitely be attracted to this, thanks to the sights, message and especially Jolie, but do remember that the magnet could’ve produced a stronger force.