Director: Robert Stromberg
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: May 28th
“You know the story. Now find out the truth,” teases the trailer for Maleficent. Indeed, we do know the story. It is that of Sleeping Beauty, one of the most cherished in the Disney arsenal. But this is not necessarily the story of a wicked witch casting a spell borne purely out of jealousy and evil.
It’s the story of the moors, an enchanted land of fairies, elves and sprites – where “They need neither king nor queen, but trusted one another” – constantly having to fend off invasion from the world of man and their greedy king.
Against the odds, young Stefan from the kingdom and the fairy Maleficent from the moors, strike up a friendship that soon turns to love. But as they grow up, they grow apart and in an act of abominable cruelty that sees Stefan rise to the throne, he clips Maleficent’s wings (literally) and turns her heart to stone (figuratively).
Maleficent sets her mind to revenge, turning up to the christening of Princess Aurora, King Stefan’s first born, to curse the child. “Before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she will fall into a sleep-like death, only to be awoken by true love’s kiss,” she promises, as a result of the familiar spinning wheel prick. Stefan then sends Aurora away in the vain hope that she may be saved her fate.
Visually, Maleficent is fantastic. From the primary colours of the moors early on – a world more beautifully rendered than anything this side of Avatar – to the melancholic blacks and blues of King Stefan’s castle, it’s a constant treat for the eyes. Dragons and ent-like tree creatures are triumphs of creativity, perhaps to be expected from Stromberg; a man with a wealth of visual effects work in the director’s chair for the first time. The action is beautifully choreographed too. The opening battle sequence, in particular, is edge of the seat viewing.
Jolie is magnificent in the titular role. Even through her prosthetic cheekbones she can portray the character’s complex eccentricities with no more than a turn of a lip or raise of an eyebrow required. She’s a magnetic presence on screen through pain, anger and, most provocatively, love.
Besides though, this film plays out on shaky ground. ‘The world of man is filled with evil,’ the film is intent on showing us. Instead of serving the message up in any sort of nuanced way, Stromberg seems more intent on writing it on a rock and bludgeoning the film to death with it. Man is portrayed as vicious, conniving and heartless again and again with no sense of remorse ever elucidated.
Copley’s Stefan turns from Maleficent’s unlikely love interest into an unrepentant, greedy social climber. There are no ends he won’t go to for his power hungry ambitions. Once he has achieved his goals, he becomes too obsessed with anger and pain. He spends so much time fearful of what might happen to his daughter that he never finds any time to love her. As the leader of men, he is the character here that seems lest human.
Only Aurora, a sheltered, naïve, young girl with a look of wonder constantly adorning her face, has any real redeeming characteristics among the world of man.
The film too, seems horribly lopsided. The Harry Potter franchise showed that kids’ movies can go dark and Maleficent has followed on from that example. The battle sequences which bookend the film, while never graphic, are sufficiently frightening to warrant the film’s PG rating. So too do the pervading themes of pain, anger and betrayal.
The second act though, is more Barbie Princess than Prisoner of Azkaban. Here it is the child-friendly fairytale aimed at small children, rather than the adolescent adventure that opens and closes the film. It’s as though two entirely different films have been cut together as one. Needless to say, it doesn’t work.
Maleficent has some very interesting, fresh ideas; some beautifully created characters and landscapes; and an Angelina Jolie on top form at the heart of the story. These alone, though, are not enough to keep film together and the whole things ends up in a mess reeking of missed opportunity.