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Maleficent Review: Diamonds In The Rough
Maleficent is not what I thought it was. Walking into the theater, I imagined I was about to watch the story of Sleeping Beauty told through the viewpoint of its antagonist. I imagined we’d get more back story into how she came to be so malevolent, and that this additional information would probably cast her in a more sympathetic light. But that is not what this movie had in store. Instead, it is a completely new story, one which has taken characters, concepts, and plot points from the original animated film and placed them into an entirely different narrative of their making. In this new story, Maleficent isn’t even really a villain at all, but a kind of anti-hero. It’s a blatant cheat on the basic premise, but it still could have worked, had the execution been solid. And in a few ways, it was. In most ways, it wasn’t.
Now, that’s not to say the movie isn’t enjoyable. There can be a very definite line between a film being “good” and a film being “enjoyable,” and this is a very good example. As much as I watched it noting all the incompetencies in its narrative and storytelling, I spent an equal amount of time simply enjoying the view. The director, Robert Stromberg, has never directed before, but has decades of visual effects work behind him, and the film absolutely reflects that. The film puts all of its eggs into the basket of being gorgeous, and while that never really makes up for the deficits elsewhere, it does end up making the film far more entertaining than I would have guessed.
Angelina Jolie stars here as Maleficent, and for the most part she does very well. Really, the role doesn’t request much in the way of emoting or heavy dialogue; Maleficents primary forms of communication seem to be posing, glaring, and generally being as visually striking as possible. And Jolie has proven consistently (in both her film career and real life) that if she’s good at anything, it’s being visually striking. So, Jolie sells it, but only in spite of the general thinness of the character. Though Maleficent is certainly the deepest, most thought out character in the film, that’s not saying much; she has three notes, to everyone else’s one. During the run-time she goes from naive flower child to vengeful woman scorned to matronly protector, with very little actual transition between and even less characterization beyond those basic descriptions.
The very worst character, in terms of development, is our new villain, King Stefan, played by Sharlto Copely. This character is paper thin and purely a servant of the script, turning from loving boyfriend to greedy schemer to tyrant king at the toss of hat, based purely on what the story needs him to be from one moment to the next, and with no real explanation for any of it. Elle Fanning as Aurora is slightly better, but no less thin; she’s the cute, likable girl, and that’s about it. She has little to do in the film except smile and be naive; she does it well, but any young actress could have.
THE BEST PARTS
The Look – This movie relies heavily on its visuals, and it does so confidently, as they really are impressive. The film is full of beautiful vistas, grandiose effects, and an impressively diverse collection of creatures. While some of the creature work may feel familiar, especially compared to other recent fantasy films like 47 Ronin and Snow White and The Huntsman, it beats them in the sheer number and diversity of these creations. Really, every other aspect of the film seemed to serve primarily as a delivery vehicle for the picturesque, fantasy visuals.
THE WORST PARTS
The Storytelling – Not the story itself, mind you. That was fine, in a simple, young adult fantasy novel sort of way. No, the problem is with the storytelling itself. The very first thing we hear in the movie is a narrator, laying out the geography and basic politics of the land; it’s very similar to beginning of The Lord of the Rings. That was fine, I don’t personally like the device, but it’s nothing terrible. Except that in this case the voice never, ever stopped. Every few minutes, this narrator was popping up to tell us how things are going, how characters are feeling, how much time is passing. It’s lazy, bad storytelling, and it steals a lot from the actual narrative. Instead of seeing characters react, we’re told how they reacted. It robs the characters of depth, and the story of impact.
The Pacing – The beginning of Maleficent plays out like a melodramatic fantasy film, which is about what I anticipated from the trailers. The final third shifts gears into action fantasy territory, which is to be expected, if a little unnecessary here. The middle third, though, I’m not sure what that was supposed to be. Comprised mostly of shots of Jolie staring intently from behind trees, the fairy godmothers bickering annoyingly, and the king getting crazier by the scene, there is simply nothing happening in the whole second act of the film. Everything shuts down for a while, to serve seemingly no purpose. It’s jarring, and more than a little boring.
The Tone – The tone of the film, like the pacing, is more than a little scattered. The king, for example, is surrounded by grim, dirty looking sets, his scenes are all about insanity, greed, cruelty, betrayal, etc., and it’s just generally very dark. The fairy godmothers, however, are the goofy, Three Stooges-esque comedic relief (they are super annoying and the worst part of the film, by the by.) And the film repeatedly cuts directly between the two, causing a tonal dissonance that left me reeling. From one scene to the next we’re never sure if this fantasy world is supposed to be light-hearted and comedic, melodramatic and epic, or grim and dark.
In the end, I still enjoyed Maleficent. The more I think about it, the more problems I have with it, but all these problems don’t make the film any less fun to watch. The visual precision, acuity, and beauty with which each shot is set up is impressive all on its own, and I have no doubt that this director is capable of using that visual expertise to make a solid movie with a better script in hand. Maleficent is forgettable in a lot of ways, but long after I’ve forgotten all of its missteps, the visual artistry of it will still be there.