A Review of Maleficent

By now, most of you have already seen Maleficent. But if I can make anyone think twice about seeing it, this exercise would be worth it.

This is a bad film, and it’s bad at the most fundamental levels. It hides it very well beneath a beautiful design. This film will win a number of Oscars next year for it’s technical achievements. And it will deserve them. I can’t imagine a better looking film this year. Maleficent creates a wonderful fantasy world and shows how much the line between animated fantasy and live action has blurred.

And…that’s about the only nice thing I’m going to say about it.

Maleficent is such a poorly written film that I can’t even put everything I want to say into this simple review. This is a movie where everyone has to be an idiot in order for the events that happen to actually happen. Characters change on a whim and forget why they are doing what they are doing. We are told that characters feel a certain way, but we never show how they get to that point. This is a film about magic, but we’re never told how it works. This is a film that takes place over the course of many years, but it still feels rushed an incomplete.

I know screenwriter Linda Woolverton also wrote the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, which practically defined “style over substance” for this decade. But that script was Chinatown compared to this. Alice was at least a well defined protagonist and we got a sense of why she felt that way she felt about her world. We never get that sense with anyone in Maleficent because they keep changing their motivations to match the Sleeping Beauty story. Don’t think that this is some huge re-imagining of that myth. It’s the Sleeping Beauty story with extra Maleficent scenes thrown in. About the only major change is what breaks the curse – I won’t spoil it except to say Disney already played that hand with Frozen and it wasn’t particularly revolutionary then.

It’s a shame this has to be Angelina Jolie’s first film in four years. (OK, first in three years if you count Kung Fu Panda 2.) She gives a fine performance and you can tell that she loves the character, such as it is. I was tempted to praise Jolie on that alone – she really is a charming actress. But the character is so poorly defined that Jolie is forced to play dumb, something no one should ever do. There are times her Maleficent is appropriately camp. But for the most part she is a dopey witch and I left wondering why they even bothered to make a movie about such a half baked character.

I’ll give you an example. After Maleficent places the famous curse on Aurora (the “Sleeping Beauty” of the Disney film and the classic fairy tale), the baby goes off to live with the three fairies I’m sure you are familiar with . One of them is played by Imelda Staunton, which is kind of creepy. Anyway, as their antics devolve into an extended Three Stooges routine, Maleficent follows Aurora and ends up making sure she has food to survive. She’s actually the one that practically raises Aurora.

Why? The entire reason she placed a curse on her at all was to get revenge on King Stefan (Sharlto Copley, who looks strikingly similar to Michael Bay) for faking his love for her and then stealing her wings in order to take the throne. Why on earth would someone who cursed a child to a sleeping death not five minutes before turn around and save that child from actual death? The movie never says. Surely if the goal was to hurt Stefan, watching him suffer after his daughter’s death would be a great way to do it. Nope. I thought it had something to do with making sure that Maleficent’s curse goes through or else she may have to suffer, but that’s never brought up as a possibility.

Neither is their subsequent bond, which leads Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) to believe Maleficent is her “fairy godmother.” OK, first off, she looks like this:

Come hug me. That is not a request.

Second, Maleficent is too happy to play along with the charade without every explaining why. It comes across as stilted and unrealistic.

There are a hundred ways it could have played. Maybe Maleficent was just toying with Aurora to hurt her later? Nope. Maybe time heals all wounds? Maybe, but we never get that sense that this was a gradual change in Maleficent. It just…happens.

How do you expect us to become engaged in these classic characters and appreciate the changes made to them when everything they do makes no sense?

I’m not against these reinterpretations of fairy tales. It’s lead to some great things, like ABC’s absolutely charming Once Upon a Time. But most of the films have been piles of limp mush which barely do any re-interpretation at all. It’s the same story with a new cover. But Maleficent doesn’t have the story or the cover. It has nothing but prosthetic cheekbones and a lot of CGI. That’s not what has kept these stories alive for centuries.

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