Maleficent, the latest from Disney in the field of reimagining, sequelizing, and generally recycling its own material, this time under the guidance of first-time director Robert Stromberg.
You’d be forgiven for not thinking of this as a Robert Stromberg movie, of course, since this project has been Angelina Jolie’s since its inception, Tim Burton had been attached to direct, until he stepped down, abdicating to his Alice in Wonderland visual effects supervisor Stromberg. If the idea of Alice’s murky, muddy, wholly uninteresting VFX serving as the bedrock for a Maleficent movie was enough to scare you away (you’d have been right to feel that way), the saving grace was the presence of Jolie, who seemed so right for the role of the wicked queen that whatever else was going to wrong with the film, we were guaranteed to walk away at least somewhat satisfied. And we are, for one full scene and a few flashes here and there.
At about the one-third mark of the film, after what feels like an endless prologue set in an obnoxious, ugly fairy kingdom, Jolie's Maleficent strides into the court of the king and queen. Filled with ill intent and practically bubbling over with smug contempt for everyone she passes, she interrupts the royal christening and imparts a curse on the newborn. Jolie is magnetic in the scene, her wide open-mouthed grin as dazzling and fearsome as any special effect. She quips, she sneers, she laughs, she curses. It's the only scene in the entire movie where Maleficent is just gon' be Maleficent, and it's the one scene whose spirit, had it been replicated throughout the rest of the film, could have saved the whole production.
Literally the next time we see Maleficent, she's already going soft. Lurking in the woods outside the cottage where three pixie guardians — Imelda Stanton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, all given the same direction: "Annoy the shit out of the audience" — are keeping cursed baby Aurora safe until she's past her 16th birthday, Maleficent almost immediately begins caring for the child from afar. The pixies are incompetent nincompoops under whose lack of guidance this child would have literally walked off a cliff, sure, but Maleficent is demonstrably enchanted by this baby in spite of herself. So she lurks and guards and gets attached. By the time the tot has grown into the teenage Elle Fanning, the girl's misconception that this sinister-looking witch is actually her fairy godmother is not so much a misconception as the only logical conclusion.
Elle Fanning is a fine actress with pretty much nothing to do as Aurora besides gasp and marvel at the pastoral wonder of Maleficent's fairy kingdom. Like Mia Wasikowska in Alice in Wonderland, you're going to spend a lot of time wondering what a promising young actress is doing wasting her time with something like this. (The answer to that, of course, is that this is a career stepping stone, and that's fine if the movie succeeds, I suppose. We'll see if this one does.)
Poor Staunton, Manville, and Temple need paychecks, too, so I guess I'm glad they're getting them. It is depressing to note that this is the only Hollywood role Manville has gotten since 2010's Another Year, besides co-starring in last year's ill-fated Romeo & Juliet (why, yes, she did play the nurse). Sam Riley plays Diaval, Maleficent's raven, enchanted into a man-sized person. He's good enough that you'd like to see more from him, and what little spark exists between characters can be chalked up to Jolie and Riley playing well off each other.
Sharlto Copley plays the film's villain, King Stefan, and I just don't know how to soft-pedal this: since debuting in 2009's District 9, Copley has delivered an uninterrupted string of horrendous performances, most recently in Elysium and Oldboy. Maleficent completes the trifecta, as Copley is once again woodenly shouty and a complete void of any recognizable human emotion or perceptible character motivation. Perhaps now is the time to toss Copley onto the discard pile of 2009 blockbuster leading men who are not viable Hollywood stars anymore. Sam Worthington could use the company.
The Fairy Tale
The story here is intended as a subversion of the usual fairy story we've been told so often. In the mold of Wicked, it's here to tell us that there are always two sides to a story, and that those whom history has painted as villains are often the real heroes. Maleficent starts out as an innocent fairy, an aspect of the original Grimm fairy tale resurfaced here. She grows into a protective warrior-woman of the pastoral moors, until she's betrayed and defeated by men. By a man, it should be noted, lending the ensuing tale more than a touch of the "woman scorned." Reimagining demonized woman as misunderstood is an admirable theory, one supposes, but in practice it robs us of the chance to see Jolie's Maleficent thrive as a true anti-hero. We have certainly arrived at a place where the culture is willing, eager actually, to embrace antiheroes in our films and television. Why does Maleficent have to be made into such a softie in order to deserve our support? Jolie does some great work as the film builds to its climax and Maleficent comes to her emotional reckoning over the sleeping Aurora. (Who, it should be noted, is not even slumbering long enough in this movie to achieve REM sleep.) There's no reason we couldn't have gotten to that same point with a lot more deliciously evil Jolie vamping. Why do we get so many scenes of Maleficent gazing wistfully at Aurora? Why is this film not much more fun?