Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2014


A fairy scorned

Disney's disingenuous 'Maleficent' fails to live up to its more thoughtful ambitions

Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville and Sam Riley
Rated PG / 1 hour, 37 minutes
May 30, 2014
(out of four)

You can see why Disney would want to rush through Maleficent so quickly; they've got a PG family movie to sell, and they wouldn't want everyone getting wise to what the movie really has on its mind. In fact, they take things even further, glossing over every plot point and idea and hoping the special effects and star power overshadow everything else.

But it's hard to miss the rape allegory that is the film's central conceit, and even harder to miss the cowardly way director Robert Stromberg, writer Linda Woolverton and/or Disney handle it, treating the event as little more than a cheap plot point. The imagery is so specifically designed, it's confounding - and borderline suspicious - that it's not examined any deeper. Instead, the metaphor is cast aside as quickly as possible as the film jumps into revenge fantasy mode and, just as quickly, from there into [trite] motherhood mode. And before you know it, we've gone from A to B to C to D without stopping to really explore anything. Maleficent dances around and skips over all of its substance, landing only on the bullet points of a story far more emotionally complex than Stromberg has the time or inclination for.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not asking for deep social commentary or sexual politics as a requirement for a movie like this. But if you're going to go there - and Maleficent pretty obviously wants to go there - then don't cheapen it by glossing over it as if it's not relevant. You can't just bring it up and then turn your back on it as if it were of no importance.

Somehow, the whole thing still clocks in at more than an hour and a half, even though not nearly that much material has been covered. Usually when it feels like a movie just flew by, and those 90 or 120 or 180 minutes spent in the theatre didn't feel like 90 or 120 or 180 minutes, it's a good thing. In this case, Maleficent felt like it was 20 minutes long. Nothing was actually explored with any depth, yet it took the filmmakers 97 minutes to not explore it. It's like eating a piece of iceberg lettuce and discovering it was 500 calories.

The film's inability or unwillingness to traverse the most potent thematic material - which conveniently doubles as the central turning point of the entire plot, so there's really no excuse for short changing it - is sadly emblematic of the film's storytelling as a whole. For all it attempts to get through - the blossoming and deterioration of a relationship; a vicious attack and the elaborate revenge scheme that answers it; a years-long territorial conflict; and finally a budding kinship between a young woman and her mysterious surrogate mother - it feels like hardly any time is spent with any of it. At the very least, what time we get is not spent very wisely. When in doubt, we get a montage with a bit of voiceover to fill in the gaps.

In telling the tale of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of its antagonist, the film provides Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) with the most tragic of backstories. It began with young love between her - a very powerful fairy - and a young peasant boy named Stefan. Despite the fact that fairies and humans are not meant to intermingle, the two form a bond that lasts for several years, until, for reasons the film never explains, they go their separate ways. We next see Stefan (Sharlto Copley, in another unmodulated, scenery-chewing performance, a couple of notches less embarrassing than Oldboy) years later as a servant to the king (the fact that the young boy insisted he would one day be king should have been a red flag to young Maleficent, yes?). Now on his deathbed, the king promises the crown to whomever can slay Maleficent, his most powerful nemesis in the ongoing battle between their kingdoms.

And so, Stefan finds Maleficent again, drugs her and cuts off her wings. We quickly shift to the next morning, as Maleficent awakens to see what has been done to her - and just as she screams, the picture fades to black, brushing past the tragedy so we can move forward with the plot. This is the film's single greatest failing (among many) - it botches the most important event in the film. Not only in its execution of the sequence itself, but in the way it only treats the event as a plot mover, rather than as the devastating experience it theoretically is. The movie has no time for Maleficent's pain - or only as much as is minimally required so that we understand her revenge plot moments later.

What makes that failing even more conspicuous is how sloppy Stromberg and Woolverton handle the rest of the story. We know all about the curse - Maleficent crashes the christening of the king's new daughter, Aurora, cursing her to prick her finger on a spindle on the eve of her 16th birthday, and fall into a deep sleep that can only be broken by true love's kiss. The kind of true love that Maleficent, heartbroken, does not believe exists. The film almost immediately makes King Stefan - that pathetic, sociopathic, power-mad whelp - its official co-victim. In fact , we see more of his anguish during the curse sequence than we ever did of hers.

Stefan's plans on protecting his daughter are incompetent in a Benny Hill sort of way. He sends his daughter off to a secluded cottage, protected only by three bumbling fairies who never seem to know where Aurora is at any moment, ever. Meanwhile, Stefan commissions all the soldiers in his kingdom to find and capture Maleficent - which they could easily do, if they only went to Aurora's cottage. Maleficent is always there, keeping tabs on the child she's cursed - and slowly but surely gaining some affection for her. This relationship is the emotional crux of the movie, but it's never given a chance to really develop - again, it just happens because it's part of the plot, and because the screenplay says so. Not because we see witness any kind of emotional arc.

As much as anything, Maleficent herself is a classically devised Movie Star role, and Jolie is the perfect incarnation of the character. (Strangely, the filmmakers give her prosthetic cheekbones - all to make her more directly resemble the cartoon version - that are completely superfluous. It would be like an '80s action movie casting Arnold Schwarzenegger and then giving him prosthetic biceps.) Still, for as much as she can command the screen - indeed, the scene of the curse itself is a vintage display of star power, from her steely gaze to her evil laugh - there's a glaring inconsistency to the performance as a whole, which I would chalk up more to poor direction and scripting than bad acting choices. More often than not, she seems like she's on an island by herself, dominating the screen but being brought down by bad dialogue and a complete lack of vision for what her character ultimately means to this movie.

That absence of vision is what ultimately undoes the film. Disney is capitalizing on the renewed interest of big-budget fairy tales, but their purpose seems to begin and end with Angelina Jolie's star power, while everyone else's intentions congeal into a confused muddle. There are interesting ambitions within Maleficent, but no one was around to actually see them through.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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