Review: Maleficent (2014)

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Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Brenton Thwaites, Juno Temple & Kenneth Cranham
Runtime: 97 min // Certificate: PG


Alright, so here’s a confession; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sleeping Beauty. I stress the word “think” there because I might well have seen it when I was young, but I don’t remember actually sitting down to watch it. As such, let’s just say that the character of Maleficent (who up until about a year ago I used to call “Mal-efficient”…) wouldn’t be one of my specialist subjects on Mastermind. Nonetheless, the story of Sleeping Beauty is part of the cultural zeitgeist and so even though I don’t know the tale well, I still know it to an extent. As such, even I can tell that Maleficent isn’t just a re-telling of the classic story but is in fact a whole new take on it.

In this version of the tale, which combines all the most recognisable elements of Sleeping Beauty with something new but not necessarily better, Maleficent (Jolie; Girl, Interrupted) is portrayed as what Carol Clover – the bane of my life – might refer to as a ‘victim-hero’, rather than just a typical Disney villain. The strongest and most beautiful of all the fairies, she becomes bitter and full of vengeance when a man she once trusted – Stefan (Copley; Elysium) – removes her wings in order to become King of all the humans. Maleficent, in turns, curses Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Fanning; Super 8) so that on her sixteenth birthday she will fall into a deep sleep from which only “true love’s kiss” can awaken her. As you can see, there’s a bit of the old and a bit of the new thrown in to the concoction.

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The film hinges almost entirely on Angelina Jolie who, let’s be fair, is brilliant in the titular role. She brings a peculiar combination of elegance and kitsch to the role, playing Maleficent as both a pantomime villain and a tragic fallen hero, and though it’s camp as all your Christmases come at once it’s an also infectious and enjoyable performance that Jolie seems to relish. Though the character is a bit generic, even after all the attempts to change her from a one-dimensional villain into something a bit more interesting, Jolie holds her own and displays both some decent comic timing and a real affection for the character she’s portraying.

Alas, the rest of the film is all a bit redundant and aimless. I appreciate the attempt to give Maleficent’s character a bit more oomph but the whole “scorned woman” thing has been done to death over the years and it seems unbefitting of Disney to resort to such an anodyne retcon with one of their most infamous characters. In fact, if you push the certificate up a few notches, Maleficent might well pass for a rape-revenge film, such is the laziness of how her descent into evil (or not, as the case might be) materialises. Yet in the same breath it also all feels just a little bit too safe. That Maleficent is out for revenge is not the problem as such, but because the relationship between her and Stefan is so crudely developed, I wanted and needed something with a bit more bite to keep my attention.

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Now, I naturally assumed that the creaky plot might be the result of there being a bit too much emphasis on the visuals, what with this being a Disney film and all. However, the visual effects on offer here are really quite poor. Maleficent’s World is cartoonish and garish – which is fine, as it stands in stark contrast to the “human” World – but it all looks far too false. When Angelina Jolie walks through the forests, surrounded by fairies and goblins and big tree creatures, I couldn’t help but think of the late, great Bob Hoskins wandering through Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The effects whenever Maleficent takes flight look particularly cheap and as such it becomes harder still to invest in this rather generic revenge story. There’s some salvation to be found in the film’s two major battle sequences, which look decent enough and are – considering it’s a children’s film – pretty thrilling to boot, but the rest of it all looks very dodgy indeed.

Ultimately, Maleficent is a passable but wholly unremarkable film that is just about rescued by Angelina Jolie’s brilliant performance. That’s really all there is to it. The story is bland, the characters are mostly irritating and both Elle Fanning and Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) – who plays Aurora’s apparent “Prince Charming” – are frankly dreadful in two of the film’s major roles. That Jolie’s cheekbones are sharp enough to slice through all of these problems is a blessing, for she really does carry the film and gives a rather dull character some much-needed personality. It’s just a shame that practically everything else about it screams “unnecessary cash-in”.