[30 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s all there: the high cheekbones, the blood red lips, the dark flowing gown and the horned headdress. From the outside looking in, Disney has done very little with their design for the live action version of their character Maleficent. Sure, she’s no longer a pen and ink patchwork of previous villains. Instead, she’s now an international superstar, typecast for her own unique “beauty.” Where once pure evil dwelled, a more complicated heart exists. You see, the House of Mouse wants to Wicked their previous telling of Sleeping Beauty, switching mediums and making the baddie merely ‘misunderstood.’ While it sounds like a solid idea, the execution is inexcusable. The result is a movie with more cinematic personalities than an entire asylum full of patients.
We begin with backstory, since no fairytale worth it’s 2014 salt can survive without unnecessary pre-narrative padding. Back in the days of an uneasy peace between the real and fairy worlds, a young farm hand named Stefan wanders into the woods, only to meet up with an equally youthful Maleficent. They fall for each other, but soon learn there’s no such thing as “true love”. Fast forward a few years and she (now Jolie) is preparing to engage the current King (Kenneth Cranham) in battle. Using her wings (now THERE’S something new) and a bunch of reanimated tree stumps, she wins the day. This makes His Royal Highness his incredibly pissedness and he sends out a call throughout the kingdom: anyone who can vanquish Maleficent will have his crown.
Stefan (now Sharlto Copley) is eager to take advantage of this mandate. He goes back to visit his former fling, drugs her, and then removes her wings. Betrayed, Maleficent vows revenge. When Stefan becomes King and has a daughter, she puts her plot in motion. During a celebration, she storms the castle and puts a curse on Baby Aurora. For those unfamiliar with the fairy tale, Maleficent makes it clear that on the child’s 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. Stefan immediately sends the infant to live with three bumbling nitwit fairies—Knotgrass (Imelda Stauton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville). They are to guard her safety. Naturally, they don’t and for some unexplained reason, Maleficent starts to secretly raise the child.
Fast forward the appropriate number of years and Aurora (Elle Fanning) is a glorious girl with a sweet spirit. She befriends Maleficent and it’s not long before our sorceress decides to break the spell. Sadly, she can’t. Then Aurora finds out the truth about her new friend and flees to the castle. There she find her dad going insane and preparing once again to battle his angry ex. Hoping to stop the curse once and for all, Maleficent hijacks a young Prince, carts him to the King, and hopes that true love will prevail. Of course it doesn’t, but it also doesn’t matter. There is a bond much deeper than mere emotion, and we soon see how it affects Maleficent, as well as what awaits her in Stefan’s trap.
For those of us who grew up on The House of Mouse’s colorful cartoon version of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent will seem like an overwrought, ill-conceived muddle. With a motive that suggests our “mistress of all evil” is nothing more than grossly misconstrued, this is witch reconfiguring without the showtunes, pat emotional melodrama without any of the genre’s gravity or appeal. From the moment we see a younger version of the vile queen making doe-eyes at some human, we know things won’t end well, and when Sharlto Copley comes to “warn” Angelina about the King’s plans, his weak-kneed nerdiness just scream “double cross”. In essence, our villainess is pissed because she fell in love, fell for his smooth talk, and was taken advantage of (apparently, losing one’s wings is a BIG DEAL in fairy land).
So as the movie itself says, this is not the story of a hero vs. a villain. Instead, it’s the story of a hero and a villain, and by wearing both titles, Maleficent misfires. Oh sure, it’s got lots of goopy CG. There’s tree monsters and trolls, a bird servant who takes many forms (including human, horse, and dragon) and a bunch of sprites and flying creatures that wouldn’t be out of place in director Robert Stromberg’s Oscar winning F/X work (Alice in Wonderland and Avatar). But empty spectacle is just that, eye candy with too many asides and unrealized subtexts. Blame screenwriter Linda Wolverton for this contrived ambiguity. Her update of Alice was about girl power. This seems like nothing more than a well meaning misrepresentation.
Perhaps it’s the piecemeal approach, part flight of fantasy, part dour cautionary tale. Indeed, from the very beginning, we scoff at the love affair. Just how horrid it would become is shocking. Similarly, this movie plays women in one of two wholly unrealistic ways: mere dim bulbs (the three “kooky” caretaker fairies) or victims (Maleficent, Aurora). Even when we get to the moment when our lead has a change of heart, it’s one forced out of plotting, not possibilities. That Maleficent falls for Aurora’s charms is understandable, it’s just not part of this particular tale’s lore. Sure, we can buy the Mad Hatter as a unhinged survivor or Alice as a warrior because that’s the world Tim Burton envisioned. Here, the desire to stay solidly within the Sleeping Beauty basics (if barely) undermines any real invention.
And yet, those who adore Jolie will simply love her here. Stromberg may not get a lot of things right, but the actress is never short of pristine in every shot she appears in. True, her fake prosthetic cheekbones can be a bit annoying at first, but we get used to them… just like we get used to her flawless lip lines, radiant eyes, glossy nails, and porcelain complexion. She’s a figurine come to life, which may explain why Maleficent feels so fake. It’s manufactured magic, the kind that Disney used to conjure up without breaking an aesthetic sweat. Now, the seams are showing and the alterations are obvious, resulting in a misfire, not a memorable revision.