Maleficent (Robert Stomberg, 2014) – There’s undoubtedly something inspired about casting Angelina Jolie as the classic Disney villain Maleficent, and certainly in the few scenes in which the actress revels in evil the film works as promised. Unfortunately, most of the movie is wasted as yet another Disney fantasy adventure reboot a la Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great And Powerful. In hindsight, it was probably to be expected. Though the prospect of telling a classic Disney fairy tale from the perspective of the villain offers up some delicious possibilities for a harsh and unconventional family fare, this is still a Disney product. The company remains a delightful children’s fantasy factory, but they aren’t exactly a studio known for dark, morally ambiguous tales or movies that have fun with bad behavior. Nope, they make candy colored feel good fairy tales. There’s nothing wrong with that as a general rule, yet to turn an iconic evil queen into a spurned fairy with a warm heart hidden beneath her nasty exterior feels like a wasted opportunity at best and a depressingly average feel good fantasy film at worst.
When we meet Maleficent, she’s a pink-lipped fairy who loves all creatures in the world, especially those of the cutie pie talking animal variety. One day, a boy wonders in from the human world and they fall in love. Unfortunately, that boy is a prince due to be king and his father doesn’t take too kindly to the fantasy world that Maleficent represents. So, when the boy becomes a man (and in turn becomes Sharlto Copley), he chops off Maleficent’s wings to prove he’s worthy of the thrown. He gets his wish, but Maleficent is destroyed and builds a wall of living thorns to separate the humans from her fantasy kingdom. Then when she learns the king has a new infant daughter, Angelina Jolie takes on the iconic Sleeping Beauty villainous costume (minus the green skin, sadly) and shows up to deliver the classic curse involving a spinning wheel, eternal sleep, and true love’s kiss. She does so a spurned lover with a heart of gold though, not the evil queen we know. So when this sleeping beauty is sent to live in the forest with fairies, Maleficent watches over her. When she turns into a sixteen-year-old Elle Fanning, Jolie’s queen even ends up liking her and decides to try and stop the curse.
So, it’s a pretty different version of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. One that not only shifts perspective, but turns the villain into an evil king and boring prince for a mildly feminist reinvention. That’s all fine, even clever. The problem is that the movie as written by Linda Voolverton and directed by Robert Stomberg feels depressingly generic. This is another one of those classic fairy tale romps reinvented as a mild fantasy adventure for a post-Lord of the Rings audience just like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful. And just like both of those disappointing blockbusters, all of the charming idiosyncrasies and quirks that made the original stories so memorable have been bleached away. At least this time, no one at Disney forced a cult filmmaker to sublimate their voice in favor of the final product. They just hired longtime special effects supervisor Stromberg to make Maleficent as a first feature without any fear of the director trying to impose such pesky concerns as an original voice, personal style, or thematic intent onto the studio’s corporate product. This is the most lackluster and pointlessly softened Disney fairy tale reboot to date, so at least it doesn’t drag a beloved director down with it for once.
Though pretty well all of the characters are devoid of personality and the actors playing them are left hung out to dry with little to do, it has to be said that Maleficent is still somewhat worth watching purely for Angelina Jolie’s glorious, vamping performance. Since activism, parenting, and directing have derailed Jolie’s acting career, the film marks the first time the actress has appeared on screens since 2010 and it’s almost startling to be reminded of what an incredible presence she has. The role might be dulled by tiresome backstory and softened by revisionist heroism, but Jolie still digs deeply into the few evil scenes she’s has left. Whenever she gets to be evil, Jolie’s million dollar smile and prosthetics-enhanced sharpened features full embody the classic Disney villainess with deeply entertaining results. She even manages to make the tragic backstory work and you feel for the spurned character in unexpected ways. Jolie is the movie and she’s wonderful to watch. It’s just a shame that the script didn’t allow her to truly revel in evil because she clearly enjoys the larger-than-life performance style and even more frustrating that everything surrounding her central performance is so underdeveloped.
As usual, Disney certainly didn’t drop the ball on their Maleficent Blu-ray on a technical level. The video transfer offers jaw-dropping clarity, color, and detail, while the lossless sound mix is enveloping and even overwhelming. Whatever faults Disney blockbusters might have, the technical accomplishments aren’t one of them and their Blu-rays follow suit. Sadly, the emptiness of Maleficent is mirrored in its hollow special features section. A handful of one to eight minute featurettes offer snippets of production details with an emphasis on broadly describing technical trickery over anything involving storytelling and acting. There are also a few useless deleted scenes and a DVD copy just in case you want to go back in time on the film’s home video presentation. I suppose this special feature section is a mild treat for anyone looking to kill an extra 20 minutes once the movie is wrapped up, but it won’t sadly offer much insight into anyone interested in the filmmaking process or the history of Disney. It’s all just glossy fluff, just like the movie it’s promoting.
Maleficent might have the sheen and star of a proper blockbuster, but it also has a script and intent so safe and by-the-numbers that it feels boring and impersonal. To sum up: great performance, wasted potential, average movie, sweet technical Blu-Ray, worthless special features section. Sadly, it’s become the live action Disney way. Ah well, at least Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen proved the Disney Animation department still knows what they’re doing. It’s not like the studio’s batting average for live action features has ever been great. If nothing else, Maleficent is certainly better than any of their sentient car movies. So that’s something. (Phil Brown)