Angelina Jolie is marvelously wicked in Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action MALEFICENT, but is the film’s attempt to de-villain-ize its villainess a success or a failure? Check out this (belated) installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast to find out. Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski debate the wisdom or retro-fitting classic tales with updated elements that may not fit.
The goofiest filmed version of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1995 attempts to gene-splice a new WICKED-esque back story with the familiar elements of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, resulting in a cluttered feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.
Since she is not malefic, why is she named Maleficent?
The question may seem pedantic, but truly it is symptomatic of everything wrong with MALEFICENT, the live-action prequel-remake of Walt Disney Pictures’ classic animated film SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). While trying to contort the narrative into a WICKED-esque apologia for its not so villainous villainess, the new film shoe-horns in elements from its source (itself based on tales by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm) with the enthusiasm of a reluctant young host inviting unwanted older relatives simply because they’re expected, regardless of whether or not they fit in. Meanwhile, the new story line stumbles along, occasionally colliding with the older bits, feigning familiarity but really rushing to get away as soon as possible. Thus, we get not only the eponymous character’s inappropriate name, but also a useless trio of fairy godmothers, an ineffectual fire-breathing dragon, and a pathetic prince, who rides in just long enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. Add it all up and you have the goofiest adaptation of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by Demi Moore and company.
In this version, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not so much a malefactor as a victim, beginning life as an innocent fairy living peacefully in her fairy wonderland. She has the ill luck to become enamored of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a young human with royal ambitions. Years later, Stefan ascends to the throne by pretending to complete a task assigned by the former king: killing Maleficent. (Actually, he drugs her and clips her wings, which he brings back as “proof” of her death.) Betrayed and outraged, Maleficent turns to the dark side, dragging her kingdom with her, whether they like it or not (a story element glossed over completely). She shows up uninvited at the party celebrating the birth of Stefan’s child Aurora, bestowing the expected curse that will send the young princess into a death-like sleep when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel sometime before her sixteenth birthday.
However, instead of fast-forwarding to the fateful day, MALEFICENT treads water for what seems like sixteen years, with the title character keeping an eye on Princess Aurora (now played by Elle Fanning) for no particular reason other than idle interest. The film makes it immediately clear that the three fairy godmothers charged with protecting Aurora are incompetent nitwits, and the princess would have died many times over if not for Maleficent surreptitious intervention. In other words, as we move into the second act of the story, Maleficent has gone from Good to Evil back to Good again, though she retains the trappings of “Evil” in a belabored attempt to pretend that there is some kind of third-act redemption she needs to achieve.
With the character arc obviously completed (at least to anyone still awake after the terrifically boring back story that has been unnecessarily inflated to fill the first act), there is nothing left to do but go through the motions, which become increasingly arbitrary and eventually nonsensical. To sight the obvious: King Stefan has all the spinning wheels in his kingdom burned, but he leaves the remnants in a room in his castle, ignoring the obvious fact that his daughter is fated to prick her hand on a needle – which is made of mettle and therefore not flammable. You almost wonder whether he is unconsciously colluding with his nemesis; instead, it’s just bad screenwriting.
Even more awkward: Maleficent is unstoppably all powerful, but the film pretends she is not, just long enough to stretch the story to feature length, then admits the obvious during the climax, when she easily defeats Stefan (with an assist from her pet raven-turned-human-turned-dragon, who shows up just because this is after all a remake of SLEEPING BEAUTY so we have to get the dragon in there somehow). Which leaves us wondering: Why didn’t she simply get even with Stefan immediately after he clipped her wings? Why make her own kingdom suffer? Why curse Aurora – an innocent victim – instead of gong after the true culprit? With its (allegedly anti-) heroine being drugged and violated, MALEFICENT might be read as a metaphor for date rape, with everything that follows a cathartic revenge fantasy, but that reading hardly works if Malifcent’s focus shifts from Stefan to Aurora – another example of the “Sleeping Beauty” story elements awkwardly interfering with the attempt to re-imagine the famous villainess as a Wronged Woman rather than Evil Incarnate.
The Really Big Question, however, is why we are supposed to overlook her misdirected anger when the film comes to its inevitable happy ending. Presumably this is the Darth Vader Syndrome: no matter how much suffering you have caused, you get Total Absolution for one good turn. At least this time, it’s a woman who is being absolved, which is progress of a kind, I suppose. But truly, what good is a level playing field for the sexes, when the even ground is achieved by lowering standards rather than raising them?
At least Darth had the good grace to die after saving Luke. We’re supposed to accept Maleficent living happily ever after with Aurora, which raises even more unanswered questions, such as: Doesn’t Aurora resent having never met her own mother, for which Maleficent is ultimately to blame, since Aurora’s mother died during the long years when Aurora was in hiding from the woman who cursed her? Is Maleficent comfortable with Aurora possessing the trappings of royalty and wealth inherited from Stefan, who “earned” them by violating Maleficent? Or have Maleficent and Aurora come to an understanding, choosing to overlook these messy details.
For a film that pretends to offer a more sophisticated take on a simple tale, MALEFICENT is strangely uninterested in these complexities, offering instead a bland feel-good conclusion that ignores these lingering questions.
Wrapped up in an off-the-rack computer-generated fantasy land, filled with visual noise but no real music, MALEFICENT looks less like a Grimm fairy tale for children of all ages than a carbon copy of EPIC (2103), with live actors pasted into animated landscapes. The disconnect is exacerbated by the post-production 3D conversion, which leaves the live-action characters looking flat but separates them from the artificial backgrounds in a manner that recalls old-fashioned blue-screen special effects, which often made it painfully obvious the actors were not really part of the environments seen behind them.
At least Angelina Jolie brings some zest to her role; aided by Rick Baker’s makeup, she alone among the cast almost seems to fit into this fantasy world. The same cannot be said for the three fairy godmothers, who in their smaller form are ghastly simulacrums of humanity, their computer animated faces acting as classic examples of the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. (They look quite fine when the grow to full size and are played by actual actresses, but their personalities remain equally annoying.)
The rest of the cast is bland, barely more animated than their phony surroundings. Copley strives hard to appear a genuine threat, but he’s too obviously a fall guy (literally, as it turns out) to really register.
Special effects are technically impressive but lack originality (we get yet another version of the giant tree warrior special effects seen in LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention NOAH). The CGI dragon is nicely rendered, but since it no longer is a manifestation of Maleficent (rather, it is her servant, who usually appears as a raven), there is no emotional resonance, nor is its appearance truly decisive in the climactic battle; it’s just more stuff thrown into the frame. Like almost everything else in MALEFICENT, it’s a great image for the trailer but just another jumbled fragment of a feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together. SPOILERS The most troubling unanswered question lingering over the movie is ignored with blithe indifference by the script: Is Aurora cool with Maleficent having killed her father?
Sure, Stefan turned out to be a bad guy, but when you think of it, he did not behave as badly as he could have; as terrible as his crime against Maleficent was, he showed some restraint, only pretending to kill her. In a film that strives to find a spark of goodness hidden inside a heart of darkness, it seems odd that the screenplay can find no hint of sympathy for Stefan, who instead turns into a standard issue Disney villain, dying a standard issue villain’s death. You know how it goes: hero has the villain at the brink of death, relents; villain responds by trying to stab hero in back, forcing hero to kill villain in self-defense. Watch BEAUTY AND THE BEAST again: Stefan goes out exactly like Gaston. Which should not be too big a surprise, since both films were written by Linda Woolverton. The real surprise is how Woolverton could go from crafting one of Disney’s finest achievements to churning out this formulaic junk.
And just in case you were wondering, the ending sees Maleficent getting her wings back, leaving you to ponder yet another question: If it was that easy, why didn’t she do this sixteen years ago and avoid all the grief inflicted on everyone else? END SPOILERS
[rating=1] Avoid at all cost.
MALEFICENT (2014). Walt Disney Pictures. PG. 97 minutes. Directed by Robert Stomberg. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Brenton Thwaits, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Sam Riley.