Sunday, June 1, 2014

'Maleficent' Lacks Evil Appeal

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
On paper, Maleficent should work. Take one of Disney's most evil and iconic villains, a masterful creation by animation legend Marc Davis, and tell her whole story, a story of betrayal and vengeance outside the confines of Sleeping Beauty. Cast Angelina Jolie in the lead, an Oscar-winning actress with unquestionable screen presence who's expressed admiration for the title character and who, well, kind of looks like her. Bring in first-time director Robert Stromberg, a gifted art director and visual effects guy with two Oscars of his own, then add to the mix screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who has a distinguished Disney pedigree that includes Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. What could possibly go wrong?


Sharlto Copley as King Stefan.
Maleficent is a dark, plodding and joyless exercise in Disney revisionism that, even as it updates the title character for modern audiences, completely abandons what made her such a delightful villain to begin with. The animated Maleficent we were introduced to 55 years ago was dramatic, flamboyant and evil to the core. She was a badass sorceress who could hold a grudge for 16 years and morph into a fire-breathing dragon if you really pissed her off. Today's live action Maleficent isn't evil so much as she's moody, spiteful and victimized. When the douchebag-who-would-be-king Stefan (Sharlto Copley) uses Maleficent's childhood affections for him against her to fuel his relentless ambition, she pays him back years later by putting a curse on his newborn daughter that will take hold when the princess is a teenager. Then, for the rest of the movie, Maleficent has spellcaster's remorse and broods over whether it was a good idea to doom the innocent child--who Maleficent will gradually develop a relationship with--to sleeping death.

I don't want a villain with a conscience. I want evil. Can we have some evil here?

Oh, wait. Maleficent isn't really evil. She's just misunderstood. It's obsessed, power-hungry Stefan who's the evil one. Now I get it.

I don't like it.

Diaval (Sam Riley) in human form with Maleficent.
Maleficent starts out well enough. Our dark heroine is a powerful winged fairy and the de facto protector of a community of peaceful and magical fairy folk. They live on the moors adjacent to a kingdom of greedy and ambitious humans who don't like their neighbors. Conflict is inevitable, which results in a pretty nifty battle scene early on between all the king's men and the creatures of the moors. Under Maleficent's leadership, the mythical beasties beat back the advancing army. Later, when it's time for Maleficent to "bestow a gift" on the newborn Princess Aurora, it plays almost identical to the same scene in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It's a wonderfully executed homage to the original and Jolie sinks her teeth into it with great relish. Had she been given more moments like this, Maleficent would be a far more buoyant and entertaining film. Instead, Stromberg and Woolverton opt to make the horned sorceress conflicted and introspective, even noble--and suck all the life out of the story. We're meant to like Maleficent for her complexities, but it's clear the filmmakers have forgotten the real appeal of the character has always been how deliciously evil she is.

As the teenage Aurora, Elle Fanning is fine in a role that doesn't give her much to do except smile a lot and be pure of heart. Better is Sam Riley as Maleficent's loyal henchman and spy Diaval, who gets changed from a raven to a human and back again as suits his master.

Maleficent had such potential to build on the legacy of one of Disney's most revered diabolical characters. Instead, it denies us the gleefully unrepentant villain who made us love to hate her in the first place.

Maleficent and a sleepy Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Related Stories: 
'Maleficent' Executive Producer Don Hahn in the MCL
Elle Fanning Visits Disneyland

1 comment:

  1. The mistress of the animals (and the woods) should not be violated and mutilated, since only she is capable of loving all creatures with UNCONDITIONED LOVE, including loving humans (domesticated-civilized „little beasties“).

    Philipp can only love what he „knows and what he can trust“, hence he fails to awaken the girl.

    No wonder that all fairy queens, magicians and shamans have died out in „our“ world of iron cages (buildings, cars, electric current wires, mobile phones, …), iron wings (drones), and iron coins (money)…

    By the way: there is also some „master of the animals“, but even he has died out in „our“ iron(ic) world as well…