Probably the most charitable thing one can say about Maleficent is that it’s inoffensive. Except to Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent that is, who would likely take great exception to being thoroughly debased as a sentimentalist with a warmest of hearts beneath the cruelty and darkness. Whatever next, a cuddly Shere Khan? It might be its bland innocuousness that explains Maleficent’s unlikely success (it’s 2014’s third most popular movie worldwide), that and an evident (hitherto untapped) appetite for female-led fantasy movies. Parents probably didn’t mind taking their kids to a picture that wasn’t especially scary, didn’t last all that long, and had an easily graspable moral wedged in there (and, “It’s a love story between a mother and daughter”). But looking for reasons for its success can’t explain away that this is another empty big budget fantasy among a glut of late. There isn’t an ounce of filmmaking verve or passion, not a jot of storytelling drive, not a mote of genuine drama or conflict, or even any decent comic relief (a Disney failsafe). The case for the defence? The cinematography is quite nice (if generic) and Angelina Jolie at least looks the part.
Ah yes, the look. I was surprised to hear that Maleficent was in development prior to Jolie’s involvement. Throughout (what seems like) a long period of development hell the one thing that seemed evident more than anything else was this was a classic example of wrong-footed reverse engineering. Some suits saw Jolie’s perfect bone structure, connected it to the Sleeping Beauty villainess, and bingo, there’s a movie. It didn’t matter that there was no story, less still that the character was evil. Maleficent looks cool. So the only option, once you wade into the pool of basing movie-making decisions on iconography alone, is that she becomes a good gal wronged. There’s the lesson to anyone hoping to see a Boba Fett movie. Even when there is back-story, delving into it tends to be doomed to failure. Didn’t anyone see what happened when they tried to explain Darth Vader?
That’s not to say there aren’t strong themes or isn’t memorable imagery in the picture, but they fall flat where they aren’t relying on Sleeping Beauty itself. The evil Maleficent is basically sandwich filler, the wherefores and whys usurping what Jolie rightly references as a “deliciously evil” character. If she likes the character that much, she surely wouldn’t have become interested in “What on Earth happened to her that she would be so angry that she would curse an innocent?”
The clear-cut fairy tale transforms into a rocky yarn about a winged faerie living in an idyllic realm who is cruelly violated by her former human beau, gets thunderous and moody for a bit (but not really all that), and then makes up with everyone. It’s ironic that Jolie wanted to retain the crucial curse dialogue from the 1959 film when its tangent is oppositional to the current telling. After all, therein Maleficent dies when a man (a dashing prince) pierces her heart with his mighty sword (if you’re looking for sexual metaphors).
Here, Sharlto Copley makes for a one-note King Stefan (like his District 9 director, he becomes less impressive the more exposure he gets), served with utterly incoherent motivation. Suffice to say he becomes a materialist and the childhood attraction he felt towards Maleficent fizzles. We know this because the narration (Janet McTeer doing a commanding job; she almost makes it feel classical and worthwhile at times, but only almost) keeps stopping us to fill in the gaps. I almost have a grudging admiration for the how overtly the picture relies on telling rather than showing, and how utterly reliant it is on McTeer’s older Aurora to make sense of the story.
So, to impress his father (to prove he is a man), he cuts off Maleficent’s wings and so inspires her turn to darkness. Metaphorically, as a number of critics have noted, Stefan rapes Maleficent. However, I’m not overly persuaded by arguments for the picture’s merits on the basis on of one scene’s subtext. Not when the rest of the movie is so lacking. Later, Maleficent lost wings miraculously reattachment themselves without so much as a roll of double-sided sticky tape. If we’re looking for unvarnished metaphors, the humans live in a Tolkien-Mordor-esque industrialised and despoiled world, and a patriarchal one to boot, whereas the bounteous land of the Moor is presided over by feminine energy.
Short of getting Neil Jordan in to pep this up thematically and content-wise, I doubt anything could have saved Maleficent. Yet the picture clearly connected with families on some level. I mean to say, I couldn’t even accuse it of being overtly maudlin or sentimental. Jolie occasionally gets behind the menace of her character, and her cut glass English accent matches her cheekbones, but even as she gets behind her character’s regret for her deeds she laudably resists amping up the sympathy. Elle Fanning is irritatingly chirpy throughout as Aurora. She just can’t quit with that nauseating smiling, which may mean she’s playing for wholesomeness or it may mean her character is a metaphor for over-prescription of mood-altering pharmaceuticals to teenagers.
The comic relief of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple as feckless fairies falls flat, and their character design, big heads on small bodies, borrows some of the least attractive design characteristics of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Sam Riley is solid as the well-meaning crow-come-human Diaval. The moment where Maleficent first transforms him, and he swells from bird to man beneath a hunter’s net, is one of the very few moments in the picture that is creepy, imaginative and unsettling; the way a good fairy tale should be (metamorphoses into different creatures – including a dragon – ought to be thrilling, but they’re disappointingly flat).
Dean Semler’s cinematography is fine, but this is yet another CGI world of shiny pixels and no substance (like Alice, like Oz). Debut director Robert Stromberg may have made an impression as production designer on Avatar, Alice and Oz, but he has been imbued with none of the craft and energy of those filmmakers. Maleficent maintains a deathly torpor. It has no zest (the laughs aren’t funny) and no excitement (more pixels attacking each other). Stromberg likes his widescreen, but he doesn’t inhabit it; we’re treated to little more than a series of vistas between McTeer informing us what happens next. As for James Newton Howard’s score, it’s forgettable when it isn’t insisting on a sub-Danny Elfman choral ethereality. Rick Baker’s make up for Jolie is fine, but just about everything else is familiar and forgettable.
Linda Woolverton, who slew another great children’s story with Burton’s Alice, repeats the trick here. Hollywood seems to like her though, so she’s sequelising Alice next. Just what was required. Apparently, she went through fifteen drafts of the Maleficent script, so God knows how bad it was initially. The only memorable dialogue comes from the original Disney animation; how undernourished is a screenplay when the protagonist/antagonist warns, “It’s over” to the villain, straight out of a contemporary action movie?
The occasional reversal works; for example, having true love’s kiss come from Aurora’s surrogate mother rather than Brendan Thwaites’ sub-boy band prince. But the emotional beats are undeveloped so none of them play; why Stefan is such a bastard, why Maleficent develops affection for Aurora, why Aurora develops affection for Maleficent. It is so because McTeer tells us it is so.
If Maleficent comes across as a truncated and diced-up affair, that may be because it is. Hence the narration. Yet there’s little sense that we’ve lost vital parts of the story, as nothing therein feels vital. Miranda Richardson and Peter Capaldi were excised as the fairy queen and king of the Moors, which on the one hand is a shame as the picture desperately needed some good meaty thesping. On the other it would have extended a lifeless picture’s running time further.
It isn’t difficult to see why Brad Bird, Tim Burton and David Yates all passed on the project. There’s no meat on Maleficent’s bones, no emotional pulse and absolutely nothing that is deliciously cruel. What we have is the latest in a line of sub-par fairy and fantasy retellings, Last year’s Oz and Jack the Giant Slayer were as inert as this is, but didn’t do nearly as well (Jolie at least has presence; the leads in those two were nigh on inconspicuous). Snow White and the Huntsman was as misconceived as Maleficent, but at least benefited from some strong supporting actors and a first-time director who, unlike here, came across as if he had something to prove. The worst aspect of Maleficent is that its success rivals Alice in Wonderland in the “That’ll do” stakes. Someone really needs to try harder, but the only place where this is happening is in animated features. At least Disney fairy tales can still be trusted in their natural habitat.