This ain’t yo mama’s Sleeping Beauty. This is Maleficent. Huh. Well, that’s corny. And probably not the marketing team’s idea of a good tagline to put on a poster.
So Disney is back with another live action “update” of a classic fairy tale and this time it’s all about that lady in black with the horns on her head and a fondness for dragons, Maleficent. As you likely know the original tale, one thing to know right off the bat is that they’ve flipped the script slightly with the new film (see, I’m down with the lingo all the kids are using on the street these days).
Helmed by long time visual effects artist but first time director Robert Stromberg, the movie humanizes and focuses squarely on the so-called villain. Played by Angelina Jolie, Maleficent is the protector of the realm where all the magical creatures live; fending off attack after attack brought down upon them by us greedy humans. There are actually quite a number of elements between the 1959 Disney animated film, Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent which remained the same. I can tell you this because I double-checked the Wiki, seeing as the last time I watched the animated film was about 30 years ago.
In any case, the primary difference is the focus and story of Maleficent herself. Rather than a spiteful fairy that turns into a simple villain, she begins as a sweet, hopeful girl/fairy who falls in love with a human boy. Things go wrong eventually and as the saying goes, H-E-double hockey sticks hath no fury like a U.N. Ambassador scorned. Wait … meh, close enough.
As Stromberg is well acquainted with the visual effects side of things, I will say that the film sports some lovely effects. They tied into some of the classic profiles used in the 1959 film and the landscapes of both the humans’ and magical creatures’ realms were nicely distinct and defined. However, while I appreciated the aesthetics, it would have been nice if someone had spent more time on the script. Like, a lot of time.
I can look past the many clichés. This is a fairy tale after all. However, I don’t understand why Maleficent is the only character in the film to get any real development. Next to her, it’s the crow named Diaval that has the most interesting dynamic (why they changed the name from Diablo I have no idea and it took me until looking things up on IMDb to be sure I had that name right anyway). Casting Elle Fanning as Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) was a good idea, as her exuberant and wide-eyed innocence works well for the role. Still, giving her little more to do than fawn over the beauty of the magical creatures and be put into a light coma seems like a waste.
Then there’s Sharlto Copley’s time sitting on the King’s throne. Now, I’m a big fan of his. Between District 9, The A-Team, and even his scenes in Elysium, he always brings an energy to the production that’s a welcome addition for the audience. Here, he’s lackluster and one-dimensional. I don’t get the point of casting someone like Copley only to shackle him with such blunt and uninteresting emotions. I’d say some of it is his fault but it didn’t appear the script, or apparently the director, asked for anything more from the role than to clumsily shift inner motivations without so much as a “how do you do.”
Perhaps worst of all is the message I had hoped Disney was beginning to understand when it came to these princess tales. With things like Brave (yes I know it’s technically Pixar but it’s so intertwined now that the distinction is harder to make these days), the idea is to highlight female characters that don’t need a Prince to ride in on horseback and make their lives complete. Here, there’s a moment or two where I was hoping they’d stick to just the almost maternal bond between Maleficent and Aurora but by the end of things, as one certainly can see coming and I don’t consider saying this a spoiler in the slightest, that long-haired Prince is back to make sure Aurora isn’t left without the necessity of a future husband.
Overall, I simply found myself a bit bored by the whole affair. Although the runtime was just over an hour and half, this felt closer to two full hours with some very bad pacing throughout; largely the result of aforementioned script that seemed like it wanted to do so much but didn’t know how to economize the plot points. I couldn’t care less about any character aside from a moment or two having to do with Maleficent and there were just too many moments that reminded me of another recent failed attempt to revive an classic tale, Oz the Great and Powerful. Also, no big surprise but the 3D is completely ineffectual so don’t bother if you’re going to go and see this anyway.
Sadly, Maleficent actually made me wish I had just re-watched Snow White and the Huntsman. Same basic idea, with a more interesting journey (despite the inclusion of Bella Swan). Unless you’ve got a small child clamoring for a trip to the theaters to see this, you can safely wait for the home market and even then, you could go your whole life not having seen this and never think twice about it. For a story that has endured over the years, it’s a shame that the one word I think best describes this film adaptation is: Forgettable.
Maleficent opens in theaters on May 30, 2014 and is rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.