(97 minutes, Rated PG)
I was not expecting much from the latest fairy tale re-imagining; however, I liked that Maleficent is a different take on Disney’s fairy tale formula. Unlike recent attempts like Alice in Wonderland or Snow White and the Huntsman, this story focuses on the always frightening villain Maleficent. Now, it is hard to say that the first time director Robert Stromberg and Disney veteran writer Linda Woolverton bastardized a classic, when I was never a fan of Sleeping Beauty: but I have always been an avid fan of Disney’s fairy tales when they are properly done.
However, Maleficent fails for two reasons; first the film is completely uneven. Its mostly light tone clashes with the ‘Lord of the Rings’ battle scenes, which makes the action feel weirdly out of place. Second it takes an interesting villain and makes her into the ‘troubled hero;’ this would have been fine if the filmmakers did not drain every ounce of charisma out of the titled character. In the end, the latest fairy tale fails on almost every cylinder and is the latest dud in the long line of Disney re-imaginings.
The worst part is that Maleficent could have been a truly beautiful film: though Robert Stromberg’s background is in visual effects, it has some of the worst CGI in recent memory. The rumored production budget cost the studio $175 million and I have no clue where that money went; first and foremost, seventy-five percent of this picture feels computer generated and some scenes look like Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture work (Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and The Polar Express). And like those projects, this fake look feels so unnatural and further removes the viewer from the flawed movie. On top of this, the scenes where Maleficent flies has the equivalent look of Neo flying in the original Matrix trilogy; which means the CGI draws comparison to work created over a decade ago.
Furthermore, the aforementioned out of place action scenes are atrociously shot. The choice to make a bubbly film does not blend with the dark brooding ‘Lord of the Rings-style’ action. However, I could have enjoyed the action if it was effectively shot; instead, the audience is treated with the aforementioned terrible CGI and an indistinguishable focus. The director blends horrible computer graphics with the utilization of shaky cam and quick edits; all three work together to make it impossible to see what is going on.
But I can ‘sort of’ forgive this because it was never supposed to be action driven; this was supposed to be a fairy tale that introduces the audience to a living and breathing world. Unfortunately, the unimaginative character design leaves a lot to be desired. Besides Maleficent’s cool costume, the director did little to develop the look of the CGI creatures and the supporting roles. Instead the inability for the picture to draw me in results in a world that feels artificial and soulless. All in all, the director never had a distinct vision and choose to use a ‘mish-mash’ of other fairy tale visuals: unfortunately he copied from inferior films.
Also, instead of practical effects mixed with CGI, certain shots are entirely done with a computer. In fact, it feels like most of this film is done in front of a green screen: almost every outdoor scene comes off as horribly fake. This is unfortunate because some of the practical sets had an awesome production design. But it seems Robert Stromberg comes from the George Lucas school of style over substance. And I understand that they were going for a hyper-realized look to create a real-life fairy tale. But did the look of Maleficent have to be so poor; the cinematographer, director, and the visual effects team mishandle what could have been a picture with a beautiful color palette. Instead, the bright colors are dulled and the screen has a constant look that it is ‘smeared with dirt.’
But the director’s lack of vision is personified by some atrocious storytelling; everyone knew that Maleficent would be a neutered story of the famous villain. Disney was not going to create a new franchise with Angelina Jolie as the antagonist. Instead, the villain gets turned into somewhat of a hero with a horrible back story, which creates an extremely whiny character; her so-called villainy is more of a reaction to the predicament she is in. Yes, Maleficent’s motivation was never a good one (in the fairy tale or Disney’s animated picture), but at least that made her somewhat scary; the smallest slight against the evil fairy was answered with a crippling curse. Here she just comes off as a scorned lover and any theme of independence (which after Frozen, is heavily forced into everything) is contradicted with this seemingly dumb storyline.
Furthermore, it does not help that the plot is extremely predictable. And though this clocks in at 97 minutes, the predictability causes Maleficent to feel like three hours plus, with plenty of lulls that test the viewer’s ability to stay awake. The only scene that I actually enjoyed was when Jolie’s Maleficent delivers the curse; it is the only part where Jolie gets to act sinister and unsurprisingly, it works. What makes matters worse is that uninteresting characters inhabit the screen for majority of the time; the supporting roles are either really annoying, poorly executed, or do not belong in this established universe.
For instance, the fairy godmothers feel like an unfunny version of the three stooges; they are supposed to be the comedic relief, yet their bickering and stupidity make them more of a nuisance than humorous. Simply, I dreaded every moment they came on screen, which is terrible when they play a key role in the storyline. Furthermore, I can understand what they were trying to do with Elle Fanning’s Aurora, but the terrible writing mars the portrayal of the innocent princess: the naïve character is not the focus, but at the least, Aurora should have been more than a one dimensional damsel in distress.
With that said, I did like the dark turn that the filmmakers took with Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan: too bad the performance and writing does not belong. If they decided to keep Jolie as a villain then this darker take on the King could have worked, but instead, it seems out of a place in this kid-friendly fairy tale. The only side character that garnered my interest is Sam Riley’s Diaval, but he feels shoehorned into a movie that is already over-saturated with characters; perhaps then, his likability should be attributed to Riley’s acting, rather than the depth of the henchman. Now, the rest of the cast is rounded out with child actors that are equally as dreadful as the material. It is one thing to watch the acting of awkward children, it is another thing to watch this bad acting with some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue of 2014: the only 2014 movie with worse dialogue is The Legend of Hercules.
And the horrid lines are not limited to the younger cast; every single person in Maleficent gets this misfortune, which blends horridly with the misdirected line delivery. The result is some of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes of 2014: and Jolie is the biggest culprit. I truly feel bad for the actress because like some of her supporting stars, she is truly giving her all. But unfortunately, the aforementioned motivation and story makes the whole picture a tedious journey that equates to the feeling of doing homework. Perhaps if they tried something different with Maleficent, it could have been an interesting affair. But this highly predictable mess stumbles to a rushed conclusion that defies logic and assumes that the audience is stupid. However, by that point I simply did not care about the obvious outcome; I just wanted a brisk conclusion to this failed attempt to reinvigorate and rebrand an old franchise.
Needless to say, Disney’s latest wastes a fantastic cast on a dull script and a director that does not have a distinct vision. I cannot in good conscience recommend this to anyone, even though its intended demographic may like Maleficent more than me; out of all their projects, I hope Disney can forever lock this away in their mystical vault.