Sunday, June 29, 2014

Maleficent Review: A Most Twisted Take on a Familiar Tale

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Robert Stromberg
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Release Date: May 30, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

I'm not really sure where to start with this one.
Maleficent is an... interesting beastie to say the least. A new live-action retelling of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty (and one that definitely takes advantage of that film's familiar iconography), star Angelina Jolie's storybook style narration immediately establishes the film's mission statement: namely that the familiar story Disney had been telling us for decades was wrong this entire time. No, this was the true story that you never knew before. Now, being a hardcore Disney fan since birth I could tell you that such a statement is a very risky one to say the least, one that could backfire spectacularly with audiences if not executed with both boldness and grace. And if there's anything I can say favourably of Maleficent (aside from the pitch-perfect casting of Angelina Jolie as the title character), it's that it certainly gets that first one down.

The film is split into three acts: the first act presents the origins of Maleficent and why she went bad, the second act is mainly a revised version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, and the third act has a decidedly different big climax and final battle at the end. There isn't really any way to talk about plot and character in this movie that won't involve SPOILERS, so I just think I ought to disclaim about that before saying anything more.
Okay then, so the story actually opens with Maelficent (Angelina Jolie) as a young girl, a sweet and powerful fairy beloved by all in her realm. But the humans have a (unsurprisingly irrational) hatred of the fairies and their kingdom, so the two sides have a fair level of tensions between them. Maleficent meets the peasant orphan Stephan (Sharlto Copley) as a child and the two become friends and fall in love as they grow older. But Stefan becomes driven by ambition to gain power in the human kingdom, and Maleficent's defiance of the aging king has made her a target, enough so that the dying ruler offers the throne to anyone who can kill her.
And here is where things get dark...
The film's big origin twist (and by far the most controversial element of the film) involves Stefan seducing Maleficent, drugging her drink, and cutting off her wings as a trophy for the king so he can ascend to power. The implications aren't hard to pick up on: Maleficent was essentially date raped by a man she loved and trusted, and furthermore the removal of her wings is symbolic of castration or genital mutilation, the forceful removal of her name source of female empowerment (he tries to kill her at first, but can't bring himself to bring the dagger down- adding an extra layer of male impotency). The sequence itself is undoubtedly the most shocking and powerful in the film, primarily anchored by Jolie's commanding performance- her reactions of shock, pained screams, struggling to walk up again, it all compellingly conveys the dark metaphor. This shell-shocking event kickstarts Maleficent's personal journey as we see her enact revenge on Stephan by cursing his newborn daughter Aurora, only to end up watching over her and ultimately becoming a true mother figure for the sixteen-year old princess (especially since the three fairies charged with caring for her sure as hell can't do it). This mother-daughter bond with Aurora is what allows Maleficent's closed-off, wounded heart to gradually thaw, and eventually lead to her regaining her sense of love and proud womanhood again. Considering just how easily this whole direction could have gone horribly, horribly wrong, it's admirable that it uses this twist to create an effective, fully-fleshed out character arc for our title villain (now reinvented as an antihero).

Jolie is perfectly cast in the title role, and Sam Riley makes for a solid sidekick in Dioval.

If only the overall execution of everything else in the film were better. Instead Maleficent is hugely uneven. The comic relief, the main source of which being the three incompetent fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville), often grates rather than amuses. The middle act feels somewhat padded, as if the writers were struggling to come up with filler to bide time before the third-act climax where all the real plot and action happen (and even then the big climax feels oddly underwhelming, at least from an action-based perspective). The dialogue is all over the place, often ranging from decent in one scene to almost cringeworthy in the next (especially when it's trying to be sugary-sweet). The film's tone often shifts awkwardly from dark and sinister to attempts at cutesiness and whimsy that often feel forced and transparent, decidedly at odds with, well, the violence and rape metaphors. This isn't helped by creature design that ranges from uninspired (LotR Ent ripoffs, water pixies) to downright ugly (whatever the hell those subpar-CG troll-esque things are), yet the film still insists that they're apparently supposed to be all sweet and cuddly.

Seriously, I have no clue what the hell this thing is supposed to be. It looks like some rejected Spore creation...

While Jolie does a fantastic job anchoring the film through many of its faults, expertly conveying a balance between wickedness and vulnerability, the rest of the cast isn't quite as up to snuff. Not that there aren't some exceptions- Sam Riley makes a fun sidekick for Maleficent as the shapeshifting raven Dioval, showing some wry charm and a second conscience for our conflicted title character. And Sharlto Copley is appropriately slimy as King Stephan, growling as bellowing as he grows in deranged madness and obsession.  But the rest of the cast is undone by having little to work with. Elle Fanning has proven a great young actress in other films, but her Princess Aurora is just a pretty young face and literally nothing else. She and Brenton Thwaites as Prince Phillip are about as charismatic and interesting as a concrete wall, and the film seems to know it- their characters are literally treated like props for Maleficent to magically freeze and transport from plot point A to plot point B. And while Staunton, Temple and Manville are all fine actresses, they're stuck playing a trio of dolts who prove more annoying than amusing (plus it doesn't help that their CG fairy forms can't decide to look realistic or exaggerated, and just end up looking like creepy victims of the uncanny valley).

Maleficent is a film I can't help but feel very torn on. It has a bold concept and a strong lead performance to anchor it, but lacks a balanced tone and consistent level of quality needed to make it fully click. It's a film I can admire and even respect, but can't genuinely like even though I really wish I could. Judging by its success however it's clear that many have caught on to the film's messages about abuse, motherhood and regaining female empowerment, and I do think those messages are both well-conveyed and valuable to have despite the film's overall messy unevenness. If anything it makes a statement that Disney's upcoming wave of live-action remakes of their animated properties (which will include Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast) may at least have some interesting things to offer after all...

Final Score: 5 / 10

+ Angelina Jolie's commanding, wicked-yet-sympathetic lead performance
+ A bold, subversive and surprisingly dark revision of a classic tale
+ The film gives Maleficent a complex, effective, fully fleshed-out character arc
+ Sam Riley's Dioval proves a fun sidekick foil for our title antihero

- The more cutesy and whimsical moments often clash with the film's predominantly darker themes
- The comic relief (mainly from the three fairies) frequently grates
- The visual effects are somewhat of a mixed bag, and the creature designs range from uninspired to downright ugly
- The film's middle act often sags, feeling like it's mostly biding time for the climax to get underway
- Dialogue quality is all over the place, ranging from solid to cringeworthy
- The big finale is rather underwhelming from an action standpoint