Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review: Maleficent

by Adam Riske
What a strange movie.

Maleficent is interesting. It’s not a good movie, but it’s also not a bad one. Thankfully, it’s also not the oppressive slog that Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful were. Maleficent is better than that. The movie is at times subversive as well as quiet, sincere and sweet.

But the movie is often flat and lifeless for much of its short 97 minute running time. It has little sense of which tone it wants to have. At times, Maleficent feels similar to The Chronicles of Narnia (can we put a moratorium on medieval armies please?), then Rob Zombie’s Halloween, then Ella Enchanted, then Avatar (the night time sequences in the Moors looks awfully close to Pandora), then Frozen and, after that, Edward Scissorhands. I have little idea who this movie is for and what it is trying to accomplish.
The screenplay is Maleficent’s biggest issue, with a story that is all over the place. It starts out similar to Rob Zombie’s Halloween in that we learn how evil was born. But oddly enough, Maleficent is not all that evil despite the ominous music that plays when she appears or even the movie telling you explicitly that she’s a villain. I think she’s rather sympathetic, and the movie seems to as well, which is confusing. In any event, Maleficent is meant to be the character’s untold origin story showing us the betrayal that made her so cruel. Maleficent is driven by revenge after the soon-to-be king Stefan (Sharlto Copley, who, when clean shaven, resembles Michael Bay), who was Maleficent’s childhood friend and boyfriend, drugs her (yes, I said drugs her) and burns off her wings as she’s sleeping. That’s one part of the story -- the pseudo-rape/revenge exploitation movie.

The rest of the movie deals with the revenge and its implications. The revenge is the classic Sleeping Beauty curse Maleficent puts on the king’s daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) in which she’ll fall into an endless sleep at the age of 16, only to be awoken by true love’s kiss. As Aurora ages, Maleficent spies on her, which eventually turns into looking out for her out of love. Regretting her curse, Maleficent tries to undo the spell she placed on Aurora.

Angelina Jolie is supposed to be the whole show as Maleficent, but I don’t think it’s one of her better performances. She comes across as one-note, which may suit the character but as the main protagonist/antagonist of the movie it leaves you feeling a bit empty. Her usual range of emotion is dulled. The makeup (by Rick Baker) and costume design of Maleficent is pretty great, though. If you are a fan of cheekbones, you’ll be in heaven. She looks hot, yo.
The rest of the performances fail to make an impact. Sharlto Copley is not terrible, which is an improvement over his recent performances in Oldboy and Elysium. So, good job? The usually great Elle Fanning is all wide-eyed gee-whiz without much else to play. Sam Riley is fine as Maleficent’s species-shifting companion Diaval, but it continues my disappointment with this actor because he was so good in the Joy Division biopic Control a few years ago and now he’s in Maleficent playing a crow that turns into a man. The cast is rounded out by three fairies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville. They act as if they are straight out of a ‘60s Disney movie and look creepy as fuck -- like the Steven Tyler elves in The Polar Express.
Maleficent is the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, who was once a production designer and is the visual effects supervisor on movies including Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful. Unsurprisingly, the visual storytelling is where Maleficent succeeds the most. The imagery does most of the heavy lifting, while the script doesn’t offer much other than functional dialogue. He also hasn’t mastered mood all that well, as the movie is feather light at times and gothic at others. You never get a sense of the type of movie he wants to make.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t know who this movie is for. The audience I saw Maleficent with consisted of mostly families. The younger kids seemed to enjoy it. In fact, one girl was so into it that when the prince was about to kiss Aurora but backed off for a second, she yelled “KISS HER!!!!!” But the themes and subject matter are a bit advanced for young girls. Do parents want to explain that Maleficent did what she did out of being a woman scorned by the assault of a man who used to be her friend?
So where do I finally stand on the movie? It is better than I thought it would be. I’m more on board with it then not. I admire that it tries to understand why Maleficent is the way she is. I was surprised with the depth the movie afforded the character, giving weight to her choices and backstory even if it raises, perhaps unintentionally, rather adult themes.

What a strange movie.

14 comments:

  1. The further away I get from this movie, the less I think I like it, unfortunately. It's just so odd and I don't really think it needs to exist. I will still agree that it's perhaps better than the other two movies you compare it to (Alice and Wonderland and Oz), but that's not really saying much. You were right in calling it a strange movie. Another thing you are right on: the three fairies are, indeed, creepy as fuck.

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    1. Yeah, it's pretty forgettable. The only time I think about it is at Subway because they have a Maleficent tie-in going right now. I'm sure they're happy they scored that.

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  2. This is a great review and touches on so much of what is weird about the movie. I would contend it's just as bad as Alice and Oz, but that's because I liked it less than you guys and the world is a rainbow. It's yet another example this summer of a broken, movie-by-committee system that is destroying narrative cinema. It's also insanely boring.

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    1. Thanks! I hated the first 10 minutes and the last 15 if it makes you feel better. At the very beginning I was convinced I was watching Medievel Times fan fiction.

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  3. Going to see this tomorrow because my wife wants too. Reading this review didn't really quell my indifference.

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  4. Quelling indifference is not one of my strong suits

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  5. I've heard so many wildly different and interesting takes on this one. At least it's a conversation starter. I'm going to see it but not until VOD.

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    1. Yeah, you're ok waiting. Watch Cold in July on demand instead. That one's good.

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  6. I actually saw this one in a very interesting way, on the Disney Dream cruise boat and at the end of the day this thing just stinks. While I will admit that changing up Maleficent's character was an interesting way to go a lot of crap is just annoying. The CGI creatures in the fairy land are awful as are the fairies themselves, I wish they had just used the same sfx tricks they did to shrink down Tinkerbell in Hook.

    Poor Sharlto Copley just gets nothing to work with here, It seems like he would want to keep hanging out in the woods with Maleficent and break out some fairy babies but no we don't have time to explain why he wouldn't want to do that as he clearly is in love with her. Instead he ends up talking to Maleficent's wings like he was the Governor on Walking Dead.

    Also to go back to the fairies, do they have to hate Aurora so much- its fine if they dont know how to raise kids but do they really have to hate her so much, seems a rather unfairy thing to do.

    Also the narration in the movie treats us all like idiots, Maleficent and Stefan are making googly eyes and kissing one another they are falling in love I dont need the narrator telling me about every plot point, trust the children they are at least Forrest Gump smart-they know what love is.

    Last critique, the shots in fairy land are so similar to Avatar that I wouldnt be surprised if there was a lawsuit in the works, I know you worked on Avatar but you gotta get a new style man. In fact from now on I shall call this movie Malefatar.

    The one positive I have with this movie is I do appreciate the fact they got away from the standard fairy tale plot and tried to tell things in a different way then usual and that there were no terrible pop culture jokes. Its a shame the execution is as rough as it is.

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    1. Malefatar. Very funny :-)

      I give the movie credit for one big thing - it really takes time on the characterization of Maleficent even if her arc ends 15 minutes before the movie does.

      It's not a good movie. How did it play on the Disney Cruise? Were audiences seemingly forgiving because they were in the Disney spirit so to speak?

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  7. Oh it played great on the cruise and in the cruise boats defense they did give you the option of 2d or 3d showing, my girlfriend and I chose 2d. There was big time applause at the end of the picture and later kids and their parents at dinner kept saying "Oh my god its so good we have to buy it", my gf had to keep me from being a man overboard. They were also showing Frozen and Muppets Most Wanted on the boat too to nearly empty theaters and I think watching those movies helped restore my sanity.

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  8. In "Maleficent" a lush fairy-tale world is created and the result is truly magical.

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