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Maleficent Movie Review

Maleficent (2014) movie poster Maleficent

Theatrical Release: May 30, 2014 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Robert Stromberg / Writers: Linda Woolverton (screenplay); Charles Perrault, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm (story)

Cast: Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Elle Fanning (Aurora), Sharlto Copley (Stefan), Lesley Manville (Flittle), Imelda Staunton (Knotgrass), Juno Temple (Thisletwit), Sam Riley (Diaval), Brenton Thwaites (Prince Phillip), Kenneth Cranham (King Henry), Sarah Flind (Princess Leila's Handmaiden), Hannah New (Princess Leila), Isobelle Molloy (Young Maleficent), Michael Higgins (Young Stefan), Ella Purnell (Teen Maleficent), Jackson Bews (Teen Stefan), Janet McTeer (Narrator)

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Fifty-five years ago, Disney's Sleeping Beauty opened and flopped. The ambitious production was the studio's most expensive to date and its box office returns, while solid, were a far cry from the usual high standards.
Today, the film is regarded as one of Disney's crown jewels, an animated fairy tale whose artistry distinguishes it from the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. Like those of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty's initial commercial struggles are long forgotten. Thus, the 1959 film seems like a sturdy foundation for a pre-branded, big-budget live-action fantasy, comparable to 2010's lucrative Alice in Wonderland and last year's Oz the Great and Powerful.

Maleficent clearly belongs to that recent tradition, now a cornerstone of the limited in-house output of a company that has become altogether reliant on brands and increasingly on acquired ones like Marvel and Lucasfilm. Whereas Alice and Oz took advantage of the lighter competition of March, Maleficent seems to aim even higher, opening with the summer movie season at full throttle surrounded by other big movies with more to come every week.

Maleficent doesn't arrive underprepared. Estimates place the film's budget between $130 and $200 million, a range on par with this month's other marquee attractions, Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Maleficent also boasts the star power of Angelina Jolie, whose A-list status is undisputed despite the underwhelming quality of her filmography.

Fitted with large, swirly horns and distracting prosthetic cheekbones, Jolie feels like inspired casting for the live-action version of one of animation's most iconic characters. But her Maleficent isn't much like the one that readers of this site ranked above all other Disney villains in an oft-cited 2004 countdown. The higher your regard for Sleeping Beauty, the more likely you are to be disappointed by this interpretation.

Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) crashes the christening of the infant princess Aurora in Disney's "Maleficent."

We open with Maleficent as a young, happy fairy girl (Isobelle Molloy).
She is appreciative of the colorful universe she calls home and not greatly invested in the discord between her kind and the humans of a neighboring kingdom. She befriends a young human named Stefan (Michael Higgins) and gets her first kiss from him.

Even for its time, Sleeping Beauty is a slight film, leaving Maleficent screenwriter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland) and first-time director Robert Stromberg to do some padding. Their earliest attempts at this are none too promising, giving us a look at a seemingly random conflict between armored men and Maleficent's friends, tree creatures that ride on giant hogs.

Before long, though, we come to the story we know told in a new light. Maleficent (now Jolie) is maimed by her first love, Stefan (now Sharlto Copley), a servant who doesn't have the heart to kill the fairy as instructed but still drugs her and takes her wings to inherit the throne. Devastated, Maleficent finds and rescues a crow named Diaval, whose form she can and often does change (when human, he's Sam Riley with a pointy nose) as he agrees to be her wings.

Maleficent crashes the christening of King Stefan and wife's firstborn daughter and places a curse on the infant that will see prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a death-like sleep on her sixteenth birthday, a sleep that can only be broken by true love's kiss. Young Aurora is sent to live in the forest with three tiny fairies watching over her; for some reason, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather have been renamed Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple).

Here is where the film departs from the studio's animated adaptation in favor of some revisionism. Maleficent, one of cinema's all-time great villains, is reimagined as a misunderstood heroine. She knows of Aurora's remote hiding place and has nothing else going on her life to prevent her from constantly, secretly looking in on the child she cursed. When Aurora grows up (eventually becoming Elle Fanning), she mistakes Maleficent for her fairy godmother, a title Maleficent doesn't exactly dispute.

Sharlto Copley looks the part of King Stefan, but is wasted on this thankless villain role. When they're in their natural small scale, pixies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) are creepy-looking.

One can appreciate the decision not to make the title character of a big summer aspiring blockbuster a wholly loathsome personality, but the dramatic makeover robs Maleficent of her wicked appeal, defies her name, and renders her kind of boring and ineffective. No one else assumes enough complexity to make up for that either. Aurora is somehow even more one-note than her animated counterpart. Prince Phillip barely gets a cameo. And King Stefan, developed into Maleficent's lifelong adversary, never compels or puts Copley to good use.

Jolie has the clout to hold down the title role, although looking over her résumé, and even just the fifteen years since she won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, one wonders how with inane hits like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Wanted, and Salt. What she lacks is the humor the movie occasionally asks her to provide. Jolie is one of a handful of big name actresses repeatedly dabbling in action stunts, so inevitably there's a little bit of that in the climax, including a bizarre costume change. But that climax is brief and unfulfilling, more a summer movie requirement than a logical conclusion to the rather slow and dull narrative leading up to it.

You can easily surmise that Stromberg comes to directing from visual effects (Life of Pi, The Hunger Games) and production design (Alice, Oz, and Avatar). He ensures that Maleficent looks very nice most of the time, utilizing grand canvases and, of course, 3D. The one glaring exception: the trio of comic relief fairies, who start and end the film in a creepy CG-aided inconsistent rescaling of the actresses. Stromberg lacks the panache of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi, although one wonders how much of that we'd notice in their recent Disney tentpoles without the passion of their extensive bodies of prior work.

Can Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) break the curse on Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning) with true love's kiss?

In my book, Maleficent ends up somewhere between Alice and Oz. It's not the all-out mess that Burton's wildly profitable, soon-to-be sequelized film was, but it lacks the personality and entertainment that allowed Oz to surpass expectations.

Maleficent makes for a fairly enjoyable and sumptuous viewing that only disappoints in how it reconfigures Disney's take on Charles Perrault's fairy tale. The reverence it appears to hold for the source film, which gives the project a religious epic feel, proves utterly hollow, as it opts for something more at home in the millennial Wonderful of World Disney revival or on ABC's "Once Upon a Time" instead of the bold strokes of the animated masterpiece whose enduring popularity is being cashed in.

Since Disney adopted its current tentpole-driven strategy, there is little room for middle ground. With the exception of the rare mid-range release (e.g. Million Dollar Arm), everything is either a big hit worthy of a sequel or a big flop requiring lay-offs and write-downs. Maleficent's fate may rest heavily on international audiences, who have typically embraced Jolie's work (even The Tourist grossed over $200 M outside of North America). An obvious model for comparison is Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman, which opened on almost the exact same day in 2012 and like Oz, Alice, and this hailed from Joe Roth's Roth Films production company. Disney would probably be content with international-heavy returns like those of that not very good Kristen Stewart-Charlize Theron movie. While those numbers would fall short of their own March fantasies, they would likely suffice in the face of more exciting competition like X-Men and (presumably) How to Train Your Dragon 2.

Hit or miss, Disney is sticking with this line of entertainment; a live-action Cinderella is scheduled to open next March, while Alice 2 will arrive two years from this weekend.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: X-Men: Days of Future Past • Godzilla | Written by Linda Woolverton: Alice in Wonderland (2010) • Beauty and the Beast
Angelina Jolie: The Tourist • Salt • Kung Fu Panda • Kung Fu Panda 2 | Sharlto Copley: District 9 • Elysium • The A-Team
Sleeping Beauty • Frozen • Tangled • The Princess and the Frog • Brave • Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season
Oz the Great and Powerful • Enchanted • 101 Dalmatians (1996) • The Sorcerer's Apprentice • Mirror Mirror
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time • John Carter • Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994) • The Hunger Games

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Reviewed May 30, 2014.



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