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Review: Disney's 'Maleficent' Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning And Sharlto Copley

by Drew Taylor
May 28, 2014 12:00 PM
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Walt Disney's original 1959 classic "Sleeping Beauty" is notable for several reasons, but most remember it for two things: its outrageously intricate design style, medieval-inspired artwork combined with an angularly modern sensibility and Maleficent, the self-described "Mistress of All Evil." Voiced with velvety viciousness by Eleanor Audley, Maleficent was the wicked sorceress who curses the Princess Aurora with an eternal slumber. Between her now iconic look and the fact that she turned into a frickin’ dragon in the movie's last act, Maleficent was a character that inspired both awe and loathing. Antagonist movies aside (never easy to pull off), it's easy to see why Disney would want to devote an entire movie to the perspective of this embittered and potentially complex character. But the resulting film, entitled "Maleficent," doesn't seem worthy of the immortal villainess. It is, in fact, a largely flavorless snooze.


Things start off wobbly for "Maleficent." Instead of "Sleeping Beauty," from a wicked perspective, it's a Maleficent-centered prequel: a young fairy, with giant, eagle-like wings, soars through the Moors, a kind of fairy tale valley equal parts Pandora and Fantasyland. She communes with nature, including Guillermo del Toro-esque tree-like monsters, and falls in love, with a young (human) peasant named Stefan, who has an insatiable lust for power.

Years later— after a lot of clunky narration and some clumsily soaring, sub-Danny Elfman music by James Newton-Howard (would it have killed them to use some of the original Pyotr Tchaikovsky score?)—Maleficent has transformed into Angelina Jolie, while Stefan has become Sharlto Copley. Now much less enamored with his former love, Stefan’s eyes are on the prize of fiefdom. In short, he betrays her in an appalling manner in order to achieve supremacy (in a troubling scene that is akin to a fantastical and creepy date rape), but even more problematic is how poorly this duplicity isn’t really followed up on.


Replete with needlessly knotty and exposition-filled back-story, the movie finally arrives at the classic fairy tale you know: at young Princess Aurora’s coronation, Maleficent appears and curses the child to die on her sixteenth birthday (you know, the pin prick, the deep slumber, etc). This is Maleficent's circuitous form of revenge on Stefan's treachery. And despite some shoddy visual effects work on the trio of goodly fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville)— this particular sequence totally works. Jolie, in leather, horns and the pointed cheekbones, is Maleficent and a sight to behold. She hams it up beautifully and the movie briefly tips its hat to what a truly wonder-inspiring visual experience the original film was. Perhaps all were aware this was the one sequence that they had to replicate faithfully, green flames and all, because god knows the rest of the movie deviates wildly, with decidedly poor results.

Jumping forward to a nearly of-age Aurora (Elle Fanning), the princess is now living in the forest with her fairy overseers, and "Maleficent" luxuriates in these sequences with no forward momentum. Once seen as headstrong, determined sprites, they are recast as toxically poor parents who nearly accidentally kill Aurora on several occasions. Who is there to save her? Why Maleficent, of course, who now watches over the child throughout the years, making sure she is safe and happy… for reasons that are never entirely clear. Maleficent introduces her to the wonders of the Moors, amidst a sea of artificially elaborate special effects.


Strangely enough, the picture doesn’t care to imagine a complex inner life for either Maleficent or Aurora, even though it purports to act as a female empowerment movie. As one of the few female-led movies this summer, both of the lead female characters are curiously under-written; more two-dimensional than their animated counterparts, and far less striking visually. Sadly no amount of vamping can make Jolie's character more dimensional or interesting.

Unfortunately for him, much of the blame— especially during the movie's cluttered, chaotic, unfocused third act— falls squarely on director Robert Stromberg, a production designer making his feature debut on a $200 million tentpole (reshoots were supposedly completed by "Saving Mr. Banks" director John Lee Hancock). Another filmmaker, say, Brad Bird or Tim Burton (both of whom were attached at various junctures), could have elevated the script by Linda Woolverton (with some uncredited work by Paul Dini) into something special: a call to arms for young girls to embrace their inner strength and power, and to never apologize for that power, no matter how wicked others might deem it. Instead Stromberg just fumbles these ideas. The movie instead aspires to be about how, no matter how evil someone might seem, there is something deeply hurt and human inside (even if they have giant, eagle-like wings), with Maleficent being the ultimate "she's not bad she's just misunderstood" character. But Stromberg buries this conceit under a mountain of nonsensical plot points and poor characterization; who cares if she's misunderstood if she's so damn dull?


On a visual level, most of the visage is grim, empty and uninspired. The film’s 3D doesn't even dazzle like the original film's 70 mm presentation (in a super-wide 2:55:1 aspect ratio). Rick Baker's make-up work on Jolie is pretty spectacular, but otherwise, there isn't a single sequence in "Maleficent" that is at all distinguishable from "Snow White and the Huntsman" or any number of recent fairy tale-derived blockbusters; it's all shrill declarations, clanging armor and anonymously stony castles. Sam Riley also appears in a thankless role as the raven from the animated film, but this part is essentially a tangent in a movie that feels as if it comprised of nothing but tangential subplots (there’s a Prince too and he’s a total non-starting dud that makes Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Godzilla" seem like Mr. Personality).

What could have been a strong tale of female empowerment, both in terms of Sleeping Beauty (a farm girl rube who grows up to become a wonderful leader) and Maleficent (a wicked witch who locates her heart and becomes even stronger), instead boils down to the old rape-and-revenge fantasy. In an attempt to explain Maleficent's evil, they instead make her weak and easily swayed, a woman who has been taken advantage of and then decided to hastily lash out. Her transformation into the villainess isn't elaborated on appropriately either; she goes from being a humble fairy to a dark enchantress seemingly overnight, without any opposition from any of the creatures she seemingly oversees. And while there are occasional moments of connection between the two leads, in which the witch's vulnerability matches well with the young princess' fragility, it’s still deeply unclear why Maleficent is so fascinated by the child in the first place. Is it because Maleficent's own childhood was so violently robbed of her by Stefan? Or is it because she feels guilty about having placed such a horrible spell over the child in the first place?

Angelina Jolie in "Maleficient."

"Maleficent" desperately tries to create a character whose motivation you will understand and empathize with. But the screenplay and direction are such a tangled, thorny patch of conflicting ideas that it's hard to tell what that motivation is supposed to be. Maleficent has been made cuddly, a wicked witch who introduces a young girl to the fairy world just beyond her realm, but on both a narrative and thematic level this feels like a worse betrayal than Stefan clipping her wings. Maleficent was a character so furious and powerful that she transformed herself into a fearsome dragon; in this movie she's happy to just make her lackey do it. It's that lack of strength that makes "Maleficent" even more damnable; in 2014 the Mistress of All Evil is just another victim. [C-]

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  • t | June 12, 2014 11:30 PMReply

    great critical review, I agree 100 % with your comments about the 2 dimensional characters -- it could have been so much more developed -

  • bj | June 4, 2014 5:01 PMReply

    I don't think this 'so-called movie critic" saw the same movie I did, but I think this person is over thinking and over analyzing this movie. IT'S A CHILDREN'S STORY FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!!!! It's supposed to be magical and fun and it shouldn't be so correct that it takes away from that magic. This critic needs to loosen up and think from a child's point of view, like Uncle Walt himself. Lighten up! Angelina was spectacular as always. So, to the critic, get some glasses, get a sense of humor and get real.

  • Bets | June 3, 2014 2:41 AMReply

    This review is so dead on, I feel like you were sitting next to me while I was watching this monstrosity. The only redeeming part of this film was the christening, which Jolie played to perfection. It was truly stunning. They even remembered the silhouette of Maleficent's shadow on the wall. Everything else was ridiculous. If they are going to take the greatest Disney villain of all time and attempt to explain her evil to the world, they need to do better than this. Think about it...Maleficent was so evil, she targeted a baby. And this is what the film makers came up with? It doesn't make sense.

  • PeaceBang | June 1, 2014 6:27 PMReply

    This is the only negative review of "Maleficent" I've yet read that makes any persuasive points, so thanks for that. I loved the movie and thought it was a brilliant, imaginative feminist backstory I have pondered since I was a little girl instantly enamored of Maleficent when I saw "Sleeping Beauty." The major point you missed is that Maleficent *did* have a legitimate reason to connect with Aurora: the latter was blessed at her birth by two fairies from Maleficent's own realm. Since we're working symbolically in the fairy tale genre, that means that the same forces that created Maleficent's magnficent wings and fairy powers were at work in the little human blonde. They had a magical (spiritual) kinship. The blessing of beauty and happiness ("never blue") bestowed upon Aurora by the pixies obviously had a magical resonance for "fairy godmother" -- a plot point that has been missed by unimaginative reviewers who assume that it must be some kind of maternal instinct working in Maleficent. It's too bad that you and so many other reviewers were so distracted by the bumbling pixies that you couldn't recognize them as the reconciling powers in the plot. That's how feminine power works in our world: it seems glittery and silly and giggly with distracting cleavage until you realize (if you do) that it is a force of nature. Woolverton gave us a big enough hint in having Maleficent nickname Aurora "Beastie" (suggesting something unhuman about her) and having Aurora say, the moment she met Maleficent, "I know you. You're my fairy godMOTHER." They named each other appropriately (feminism! yay!) out of a mutual recognition of each one's essential natures. It wasn't that subtle.

  • Tiff | July 20, 2014 5:29 PM

    Yes! I'm so glad that I'm not the only person that caught this! Obviously the blessings put on by the fairies also had an impact on her as well. A spell is a spell. Maleficent couldn't even revoke her own curse so it makes sense that someone else's spell was powerful enough to impact her feelings about Aurora. I also dislike how the critic suggests that the loss of her wings wasn't a valid reason for Maleficent to be vengeful. A man whom she was in love with and probably even slept with (which is left out because it is a children's story) betrayed her. Not only did he come back and treat her like his love never left, but then he drugged her and stole the thing that makes her feel free and powerful. He robbed her in more ways than one. Even in the real world we see how vengeful and hurt a woman can get even from getting cheated on or dumped. It doesn't take much betrayal to piss a woman off, especially when her heart is involved. And with that being said, it makes sense that she went after his baby because not only is this the closest thing to him like her wings were to her, but he had a baby with another woman. Maybe I'm one of few who caught the hurt in her face when she found out he had a child; one that he did not have with her after claiming that she was his true love. I personally enjoyed the movie and agree with you that the critic dove too deep for metaphors and lacked imagination when viewing the movie.

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