90 minutes may seem short at first, but once the storytelling takes place, it seems fitting. There really isn't much material to indulge or amuse between the introduction and conclusion. The back story, while enough to put the pieces together, lacks sufficient background for characters. With that said, the film does have enough production value to surpass mediocrity.
For the most part, the CG effects are agreeable with the film's personality. The few scenes of bright color contrast the overly dark atmosphere and tone of the picture.
The film belongs to Angelina Jolie, as it should. Listening to her line delivery hits the spot. Elle Fanning has a few moments of delight herself.
Maleficent never reaches the epic status, but for a family oriented fairy tale, it gets the job done.
In the meantime, Jolie's still got it, that thing, that "watch me" vibe, only it's wasted, and so everything else too. You watch the film ... but meh. And its over.
In an ancient kingdom, there were two lands, one with men and one with magical creatures. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a cheerful fairy with long angelic-like wings and a pair of horns coming from her head. She befriends Steffen (Sharlto Copley) an orphan with ambition to be the next king of men. He betrays Maleficent, drugging her and cutting off her wings to prove to the dying king that she is dead. Years later, and now king, Steffen has a christening for his new baby daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), and Maleficent shows up. She curses the young child, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinning needle, fall into a deep slumber, and only be awakened by true love's kiss. Steffen destroys all the spinning wheels he can find and sends out his daughter into the countryside for protection where she's raised by three fairies taking on the form of humans (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple). It's really Maleficent who helps raise her, watching over her and protecting her through the yeas, regretting the horrible choice she made in anger.
I'll start by saying the reason you should see this film, by far, is Angelina Jolie (Wanted). She is terrific. You can readily tell how much fun she's having with the character, and everything from her command, her physicality, her presence, her vocal delivery, is top-notch. She's great from start to finish, the perfect embodiment of the character. Would you believe this is her first live-action film role in almost four years? Wow, did movie audiences miss her. If only the remaining movie was as good as Jolie.
It's a shame then that just about everything falls into a rigid fantasy formula that squeezes any sense of magic dry. Maleficent is the queen of the fantasy half of this world, and after her betrayal by Steffen (more on that below), she seeks vengeance, cursing an innocent child and then remarkably caring for her through a hasty montage. It's hard to ever accept Maleficent as a malevolent character, and I'm sure that's by design by the Mouse House. She doesn't do anything too scary and when the time comes she ends up making the right decisions. There isn't really much of an exploration of her character here. There's the pretense that she's hero and villain but that falls away very quickly, especially with her loving relationship with Aurora. She wants to do right and feels terrible about the curse, but again that's quickly taken care of. Aurora literally spends five minutes onscreen in her "eternal slumber." It's more like a magical nap. If the relationship between Aurora is what makes our heroine whole again, then the climax is saving Aurora, not getting vengeance against Steffen in a dumb CGI battle.
The magical fantasy world also feels oddly underutilized. At least in past Disney efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, the worlds at least felt like they had been explored, with many of the magical creatures pitching in during an Act Three battlefield. That isn't the case here. The opening with young Maleficent (Isobele Molloy) introduces some strange creatures and some fairies, but they end up being little more than background dressing, meant to only communicate the change in Maleficent. In the end, it's just Maleficent and her trusty crow (Sam Riley in human form) and that's it. Question: if she can transform her pet into any number of creatures, including a dragon, then why didn't she do this before? When she's racing to save Aurora from pricking her finger, would a dragon have not been a faster mode of travel than a horse? Maleficent's powers are also too ill defined, and her big weakness just happening to be iron feels trite, like her version of kryptonite. The fairy world and its powers aren't given the examination it deserves. As a whole, the world of Maleficent feels less than magical. It feels more like a series of scenes rushing through a plot holding fast to the beats of recent Disney live-action hits.
I don't think I'm reading too much into what is intended as a fantasy film for families, but Maleficent is one big analogue for rape. Hear me out. The title character falls in love with a man who likewise tells her he loves her but is just using her to his own advantage. He then drugs her drink and while she's unconscious has his way with her, leaving her physically disfigured and feeling betrayed. She turns inward, rejects the outside world, and dwells in sadness and seclusion. She doesn't tell others about her attacker until many years later. The public is quick to blame the victim. And then ultimately, once she feels "whole" again thanks to reaching out to others/support, she is able to confront her attacker and rise above his destructive influence, returning to some semblance of her former self. When looked at in its entirety, does that not sound like an intentional analogy for rape/sexual assault? Maleficent's character arc mirrors the experiences of rape victims, and the fact that this kind of mature storyline is played out in a Disney summer family film is kind of extraordinary. It's not so explicit that little kids will walk home asking mom and dad about the persistent nature of "rape culture," but it's presence and articulation is a start. As a rape analogue, it's not offensively handled unless you are one who finds its very inclusion an offense for a PG-movie. Now, this storyline does transform the character in a way others may dislike. Rather than being a powerful agent of evil, she's a woman who was victimized by a man and that's why she turns toward the dark side. For some this will be a disappointing turn of events. I can't say one approach is better than the other from a feminist point of view, but I credit Disney for following through with uncomfortable symbolism for rape to describe Maleficent's arc.
The rest of the cast fill out their roles but lack the flare of Jolie. Copley (District 9) is proving that he may be best under the guidance of Neil Blomkamp. He was one of the better parts of Elysium but without Blomkamp he makes such mystifying choices as an actor. His voice and performance were powerfully wrong for Spike Lee's unnecessary Old Boy, and his demeanor is all over the place with Maleficent. To his credit, the character is horrible underwritten and given so little mooring to try and understand his ever-changing decisions and temperament. Fanning (Super 8) is an innocuous Aurora though the actress has often showed much more ability. Here she just laughs a lot. Riley (On the Road, Control) is wasted comic relief and as a companion. The three color-coded fairies are consigned to broad comic relief, usually bumbling and getting into slapstick brawls with one another. I can't imagine children finding them too funny.
Maleficent the character is given great care by Jolie, the actress. Maleficent, the movie, is slapped together and feels devoid of any sort of engaging storytelling or big-screen magic to leave a favorable impression. It's a rather expected and unexceptional retelling that hits all the notes you'd expect, though without as many magical fantasy creatures, which seems like an oversight for a world of fantasy. The rape analogue is a bold choice for the filmmakers and deserves credit. I wish I could also give them credit for the storytelling and characterization, both of which are rather flat and rote. The special effects are likewise unremarkable. Outside of the rape symbolism, this is a movie you can likely predict every step of the way just looking at the poster. I was able to even predict the left-turn ending concerning "true love's kiss," though Frozen already got there first. If you have low expectations and simply want to watch Jolie and her killer cheekbones be fierce, then perhaps Maleficent is worth checking out. Otherwise, this villain's retelling feels far too familiar and safe and underwhelming to be worth the effort.
Nate's Grade: C
In a Kingdom halved by both fairies and humans, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a fairy who protects her half from human intruders. However, a childhood relationship she developed with a human named Stefan (Sharlto Copley) proves to be her undoing. Stefan has ambitions to be King one day and betrays the trust of Maleficent to achieve it. As a result, she curses his first born child, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) to a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday that only a true-love's kiss can break.
Opening on a wondrous, enchanted land with fairies, nymphs and magical powers, we are introduced to the young Maleficant - the winged guardian of her idyllic, peaceful forest. From the outset we're definitely back in the realm of the fairy tale where Maleficent wasn't the evil villain with a grudge to bare but a caring fairy, pure of heart and who, quite frankly, got turned over. And this is exactly where "Maleficent" succeeds. It twists what we've come to know and invents a whole new story by ditching the mysogynistic reveries of righteous King's and handsome Prince's who's lip-locking charms can save a damsel in distress with a mere peck. This is more of a feminist revisioning as we get more of a backstory and focus on what is predominantly seen as the antagonist of this story. Much like Mila Kunis' portrayal of the Wicked Witch in "Oz" and Julia Roberts' Evil Queen from Snow White's story in "Mirror Mirror" we learn that their motivations derived from being scorned or abandoned by the men in their lives, lending a welcome complexity to these female characters - which brings me to Angelina Jolie's titular role. Throughout a film awash with CGI it's her that shines the most. She brings the requisite emotional depth and her motivations are entirely clear and understandable when really they were skimmed over in the classic 1959 Disney animation. It's hard to imagine anyone else being as perfectly suited to Maleficent as Jolie is and it ultimately works on her committed three-dimensional performance alone.
Another welcome addition to the proceedings is Stromberg's ability to combine the light and the dark. His expertise in the visual department is certainly on show and can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike but as much as Linda Woolverton's script dares to venture into the emotional turmoil of Maleficent, it doesn't bring much scope to the other characters. Fanning's Princess Aurora is given little to do but looked perplexed in this magical land and Copley's King Stefan has a slightly misplaced Scottish accent (see also his recent turn in "Oldboy"). As the title suggests, though, it isn't really about anyone else other than Maleficent and on that front, both the character and the performance, deliver the goods.
Despite it sagging slightly around the midway point this is, largely, an engaging and successful retelling that isn't afraid to conjure up some darkness from it's fantastical melting pot.
This origin retelling is fair enough with some surprisingly funny bits, like the antics of the bumbling and long-suffering fairy godmothers, and the far-from-maternal Maleficent's encounter with five-year-old Aurora who insists on being picked up. Vivienne Jolie-Pitt is rather darling in that scene, and Angelina is uncharacteristically comically deadpan. Elle Fanning's face still bothers me, but she's a good cryer.
If this reimagined depiction of true love had come out before "Frozen," I think we all would have found it more compelling. The motherly love shown here is still rather beautiful and heartrending, but I could actually predict it. I expected a happier treatment of romantic love too, but that hardly gets any due with the pretty but ineffectual Prince Phillip and the arrogant and vengeful King Stefan who can't do the logical thing of ending this feud against his first love. Why didn't anybody just say, "Look: Aurora's awake. No harm, no foul"?