I actually got to see Wicked a few months ago, at Dublin’s Grand Canal/Bord Gais Energy Theatre. It’s a spectacular show alright, full of great tunes, an engaging flip reversal of the traditional Oz tale and some pertinent things to say about the perception of good and evil. I mention this because Wicked is the clear inspiration for Maleficent, Disney’s attempt to pull the same flip reversal on one if its iconic villains. Wicked was smart, emotive and brilliantly executed. Could Maleficent match that? Does it justify its existence, as all sequels, re-imaginings and reboots must try do?
Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a powerful fairy of the Moors, a magical land on the borders of a militant human Kingdom. When she is betrayed and has her wings stolen by a former lover (Sharlto Copley), she falls into a bitter darkness and curses his child (Elle Fanning) to fall into a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday. But is Maleficent truly evil? Can true love bring her back to the light?
A short, non-spoiler, review follows.
I did not have great expectations for Maleficent. And if the film can say nothing else, it met those expectations. Unfortunately for fans of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty looking for a cool new spin, what has been created is a flawed beast, on just about every level. From the moment you realise what seems like a basic five minute fantasy prologue is actually going to be the entire first act, Maleficent starts to let itself down.
What we have is a simplistic tale about a ”fairy” who falls in love, gets betrayed, turns evil, only she’s not really, the guy who betrayed her is, or something. Having a simple story could be fine, but the problem is that the story isn’t just simple, it’s dumb. Seeing Maleficent fall is rather dull in practice, with a cliché story that can’t even get beyond its own plot holes. The tone ranges from Gothic drama to whacky hi-jinks between scenes and at no point does the characterisation that goes into the moving props ever really work. Having finally gotten beyond its elongated opening, Maleficent stumbles through the rest of its predictable story all the way to an expectedly underwhelming finale.
Part of that comes down to the multitude of production flaws. The acting on display is nearly all laughably bad – Jolie is fine, but her performance is one of unrelenting neutrality, whether she is happy, sad, angry or terrified. Her supporting cast are just varying shades of awful, not least Elle Fanning, whose Princess Aurora seems tailor made to be an airless stereotype. Maybe that comes down to the director though, Robert Stromberg, who has never actually helmed a big budget production before. The cinematography and CGI is nothing to really be described as notable, the wooden script is laden with tropes and the score is simply an attempt to invoke Howard Shore that falls alarmingly flat.
Here’s the real problem with Maleficent. I came out of the theatre thinking that the scene where the titular fairy curses Aurora was easily the best moment, only to discover that this scene was, line for line, a recreation of the same scene from the 1959 animated version. When that’s as good as it gets, it’s clear that Maleficent doesn’t justify its own existence in the quality stakes. It has very few redeeming aspects and bores as much as it irritates. Not recommended.
Greater discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out.
So yes, Disney wants to make their own Wicked, so cast its eye back to one of its most famous villains. Maleficent is fairly outdated at this point, unless you’re a Kingdom Hearts fan I suppose, but she basically fits the bill for what Disney required: a bad guy with few redeeming aspects, but who remains an iconic part of their back catalogue much as the Wicked Witch of the West formed a vital part of the Oz universe. So, let’s slap together a sympathetic origin story for Maleficent and pretend that Sleeping Beauty never happened.
Which is basically what Maleficent is, an origin story for that character that treats the original fairy tale as some kind of warped propaganda tale or something. This is the real deal, in an age where shades of grey are far more popular that traditional black and white.
The problem then, is that from that information you can sort of guess exactly where Maleficent is going. She starts off pure and good, she gets betrayed and violently abused by someone she trusted, she turns evil, but not really, and by the time the credits roll she is back to her old self. At no point while watching Maleficent could I say that I was surprised, stunned or inordinately interested in the course of the story being told. I felt like I’d heard it all before, and that the director/production team had nothing with which to really peek my interest, especially not in the manner that Wicked had. Maleficent asks if its main character is a hero or villain, and frames the entire narrative around that point, but its brutally clear what the answer is – she has one stand out moment of villainy, after being horribly abused herself, and that’s basically it: a few scenes later and she’s performing acts of unselfish good as a matter of course. This isn’t a bad guy, it’s a good person who was briefly pushed too far. From the introduction of the Diaval character really, who spends every other breath reminding us that Maleficent really isn’t all that bad at heart, it’s clear that Maleficent doesn’t really have much to talk about it that it hasn’t already shown up to that point.
The story is just a simplistic fall/redemption tale really, with a very basic arc for the title character, one that seems to just be an exaggerated break-up analogy. She meets the cute boy. She falls for him. He dumps her for someone else, hurting her deeply in the process. She’s angry and vengeful. She gets over it (by and by). This is not interesting cinema, it’s a teen drama with the occasional bit of magic and strange looking armour. The attempt to inject some life into this otherwise drab plot comes with Aurora, who is supposed to be turn Maleficent’s heart from stone back to what it was before, but those sections are maudlin and cringe worthy at the very best of times.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The first major problem is the way it’s structured. This is a fantasy film really, and the initial set-up follows the standard tropes: a narrated “A long time ago” section starts us off, that is supposed to establish the universe and the characters. This kind of thing is popular because it works very well at what it is supposed to do, and for an extreme fantasy setting, gets the audience settled in and comfortable with suspension of disbelief fast. One of The Fellowship of the Ring’s crowning achievements was how it only needed a five minute prologue to set up the entire trilogy. Maleficent apes it a little bit here, with the older female voice narrating with a similar style.
But then it just keeps going. And going. And going. There was a moment, 15 minutes in or so, when I realised we were still in prologue mode, with no signs of things ending. Maleficent as a child, meeting Stefan, growing up, the battle with the King, meeting Stefan again, losing her wings, becoming evil, cursing Aurora and only then do we get the “16 Years Later” indicating the actual film was starting.
This sort of thing really bothers me. The prologue is supposed to be short, so that the meat and bones of the story gets more time. In Maleficent, the entire first act, the first half hour of a 90 minute movie, is the prologue. That’s crazy. It takes that long for the story you’ve come to see to actually start. They could have made the whole film about that prologue section and it would have been better, or inserted bits and pieces of that prologue into the rest of the story in flashbacks, but instead they decided to make it into this elongated monster of a set-up, and leave the remaining hour for a rushed retelling of the Sleeping Beauty plotline.
The second act, starting 25 minutes late, is seemingly supposed to be about Maleficent turning back towards the light through her interactions with a growing Aurora (and Diaval to a lesser extent, there was some unfulfilled hinting of an attraction there). At this point Maleficent starts to have some strange tonal problems, as it leaps back and forth between gothic darkness with evil Maleficent, brooding insanity with Stefan, whacky hi-jinks with the other fairies and childlike whimsy whenever Aurora is on the screen. Scene to scene, almost line to line, Maleficent changes its mind about the kind of film that it wants to be and, in doing so, becomes the worst of all worlds.
The actual important part of the second act, Maleficent turning back towards good because of Aurora, is largely ruined because of the stiffness or ridiculousness of the performances, not to mention the really bad script, all of which I will get to in a moment. In more pure story terms, the problem is that it all feels very rushed. Aurora grows up in a few scenes, and Maleficent loses the evil glower in the same amount of time. There’ very little substance in this transformation, you just sort of have to assume that Maleficent is changing as Aurora grows up, and that their relationship is growing too, even if this is not directly shown. All of the characters outside of those two receive next to no elaboration beyond our initial look at them during this section. People like Diaval or the fairies are as one note as they come, with no sub-plots, no sense of internal evolution of their roles. They’re just there.
The final act is a little bit better, but only because elements of the terrible plot are cast off entirely in favour of a few half decent fight sequences, that were at least visually entertaining. But it’s not that much better than what came before, since the ending is flat and unimaginative, and full of more than a few plot holes.
There are the little ones – why does Aurora become Queen of Fairyland at the end, I thought they didn’t want a monarch? Is that all the iron they come up with in over a decade of forging? Why exactly does the older King want to try and conquer his incredibly powerful neighbours? – and there is the gigantic gaping one. Maleficent has a problem with its main character, insofar as she has the most inconsistently defined powers of any character in a fantasy film I have ever seen. At various times she’s shown with the ability to turn animals into other animals, the most extreme being a crow into a fire breathing dragon, she can levitate dozens of people into the air and toss them around with ease and, most importantly, with a flick of her wrist she can make people fall asleep instantly.
And yet, for some reason, she has to knock a guard unconscious with her staff while sneaking around the castle, is unable to do any levitating when the iron net falls on her and allows herself to be drawn in to a fist fight with the bad guy at the very end. It seems as if the production team had several varying action sequences in mind, and decided to just go ahead with all of them, even if they were in no way consistent with the other ones. This is not a minor nitpick, it’s a terribly important part of the universes overall framework, and Maleficent botches it spectacularly on that score. It’s impossible to take thing seriously or suspend disbelief when confronted with such drastic inconsistency. With a character you need to define powers and weaknesses early, and then stick with them. Maleficent tries to do that, but goes off the rails big time after just a little while.
In the end, Maleficent is just an attempted modern slant on a classic fairytale. But the original fairytale is far, far better. Here’s the real problem with the story of Maleficent. I came out of the theatre thinking that the scene where the titular fairy curses Aurora, at her christening, was easily the best moment, only to discover that this scene was, line for line, a recreation of a scene from the 1959 animated version (seriously, it’s fantastic, the only time when Maleficent was interesting as a possible villain). When that’s as good as it gets, it’s clear that Maleficent doesn’t justify its own existence in the quality stakes, with its plot anyway. It simply was not worth making, unless you were just after a quick buck.
But maybe Maleficent drags itself back up with the other aspects of the production? Alas no. On the acting front, only Jolie is really earning her salt, and even in that case it’s a very poor effort really. Jolie’s Maleficent is marked out by a sense of unrelenting neutrality – whether happy, sad, angry or terrified, Jolie nearly always has the same bland look on her face, with the moving of facial muscles rarer than a line of good dialogue. Perhaps only in the scene when she loses her wings or when she curses Aurora does she really let some of her usual talent show, and in one of those cases she’s just parroting an animated character from half a century ago. Critics seem to love her performance. I don’t get it.
When it comes to the really important scenes of Maleficent, Jolie falls flat. When she tells Aurora she loves her, when she confronts Stefan at the end, in any interaction with Diaval, she’s just dull as dishwater. And she is the best of them.
Copley has that distinctively Scottish accent and little more, and fails rather dismally in being a compelling villain. The characterisation he had to work with was poor enough, and his performance doesn’t help matters either, especially as he has to fall back on being a dark maniac at the end, only without any of the necessary charisma to make him interesting.
Oh, but Elle Fanning. It would be cruel to say that it’s obvious where all the talent in that family went when the material she had to work with was so bad. Her Aurora is an airless, brain-dead idiot, who flutters about and talks nonsense even as she refuses to have any kind of agency as a character. If Aurora is meant to be this way, then Fanning did a great job, but I suspect that Stromberg just had no idea how to get the best performance out of a young actor – it would explain why Ella Purnell and Michael Higgins, the younger versions of Maleficent and Stefan respectively, were similarly awful in the opening minutes.
Apart from them, Sam Reilly is OK but nothing special as the crow turned human Diaval – he’s basically just somebody for Maleficent to talk to in the second act when silent brooding wouldn’t cut it. Brenton Thwaites is as bad as Fanning when it comes to the airlessness of characters, his Prince Charming being as one note as possible. Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville as the smaller fairies are just irritatingly comedic, without any trace of actual humour, unless it was expressly designed for the very young market.
Visually, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are some good environmental effects to be seen – the Fairy land features a brilliant array of colours and creatures, the castle has a nice imposing look etc – but a lot of the more complex CGI inventions, especially the miniature fairies, look quite bad on screen, whenever you go up close anyway. That can really suck you out of a scene, and just makes the sections featuring those characters worse. There are better creations as well – the treemen and the dragon late on come to mind – but overall I wouldn’t day that I was too wowed by the effects on display.
The same goes for the cinematography really, which is basic and little more, very much the work of a first time director playing it safe. A lot of visual tropes make an appearance (when someone falls from a height, you have to pan back upwards from the body right?) and the action scenes are shot without any great deal of imagination or real sense of tension: a lot of Maleficent throwing people around, until it’s no longer convenient for the story that she do so. Better was the costuming department, which while providing a few things that looked crazy elaborate on people (some of those suits of armour…) did at least make things look interesting and vivid.
Lastly on that score, I did see a 3D showing, and once again it was the kind of 3D showing that you forgot was in 3D, so pointless was the use of the technique. I suppose Godzilla spoiled me a little on the proper implementation of 3D, but now it’s back to normal. I remain firmly of the opinion that 3D is a racket, one done to siphon a bit more money out of the audience for a negligible gain in entertainment quality. Unfortunately, it has gone beyond a fad, and is rapidly becoming the norm.
The script is a poor effort from Linda Woolverton, the author of such memorable Disney offerings as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. She’s phoned it in here, big time, and the film is replete with the sort of vomit-inducing nonsense summed up by the likes of “The boy had not just stolen a stone, he had stolen her heart” (paraphrasing, I think my mind wanted to banish the memory as much as possible). Or maybe we can mention such scintillating dialogue as this:
Aurora: I know you’re there. Don’t be afraid.
Maleficent: I’m not afraid.
Aurora: Then come out.
Maleficent: Then you’ll be afraid.
Just about every character is written in as one note a way as possible, with Aurora being the worst victim. It’s impossible to sympathise with or root for a cardboard cut out, anymore than it is to detest one if we’re talking about Stefan. Like much of the story in general, the wordplay is too simple, too focused on just getting into the next scene, and does a very poor job of characterising anybody. As I stated before, it speaks to the films poor quality that the best written scene is one where the dialogue is taken word for word from the source material.
Musically, just as with Woolverton, I know that James Newton Howard can do better than this. His score is little more than an attempt to ape the work of Howard Shore on The Lord of the Rings, an uncharacteristically lazy approach full of the same kind of horns, violins and leitmotifs. A little bit better is Lana Del Ray’s credits song “Upon A Dream”, which had the right kind of hazy fairytale quality to it.
And so to themes. Maleficent is fairly shallow for the most part, but I suppose there are a few things worth noting. True love is an obvious one, with an emphasis in Maleficent of subverting the traditional expectations, one of the few times it actually does so. The relationship between Maleficent and Stefan seems like a traditional love story but rapidly turns dark: in fact, as many others have pointed out, the severing of Maleficent’s wings looks like a fairly deliberate allegory for rape in the way that the title character reacts. I can appreciate that kind of thing, and it’s some of the only decent tension raising and stakes expanding that Maleficent actually does.
True love is not the false, and later violent, offerings of Stefan. What he offers is based solely upon his own gratification, and the exposure to this warps Maleficent into the evil creature that she becomes. Her journey is one of discovering true “true love”, something that can be platonic in nature, simply the affection between a Godmother and Goddaughter. I suppose the popular consciousness of fairy tales is so focused on romantic attraction, that it’s good to see such an approach (even if the execution in Maleficent was more than a little botched). The other contrast is with the Prince Charming character, whose kiss is unable to wake Aurora from her cursed sleep. I suppose the point there is that no key relationship is made from one meeting, and “love at first sight” is not something to rely too heavily on.
Another theme is that of innocence. There is a direct comparison drawn between the young Maleficent and the young Aurora, who are both naive girls with little experience of the outside world, all too willing to dive headfirst into the first opportunity for something out of the ordinary. Maleficent did this and got burned, so she’s over protective of Aurora. The title character lost her innocence, so she wants to make sure that Aurora doesn’t lose hers. Aurora never really does of course – the film ends with her becoming Queen of the Fairies after all – but there’s at least a half-way interesting narrative there about how authority figures try and use their own experience when dealing with a younger generation, often to a negative end.
Overall, I was horribly underwhelmed by Maleficent, and that was with already low expectations to begin with. The film features a very sub-par story with disjointed pacing and major tonal problems. The acting ranges from terrible to merely acceptable. The visuals are mixed, with as much good as bad. The script is terrible. The score is humdrum. There are a few minor redeeming elements, but ultimately this film must be seen for what it is: a cash grab, one riding on the coat-tails of a far superior cousin in the form of Wicked. And that’s a shame, because there was some potential here, there really was. But nowhere near enough was done with it.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).