Wednesday, June 04, 2014


MALEFICENT (Robert Stromberg, 2014)

MALEFICENT loves looking at Angelina Jolie embodying the fairy previously familiar as SLEEPING BEAUTY’s villain. Whether shown in shadow, profile, or many loving close-ups, Jolie cuts a striking image as the horned protagonist. Her prominent cheekbones are enhanced to make them seem as sharp as sabres. The stylish, form-fitting headpiece suggests a turbaned Gloria Swanson if she also had antlers. Jolie doesn’t craft a performance from the title character so much as she imprints a presence on the film’s frames. That this seems more like modelling than acting isn’t intended as slight against what Jolie accomplishes here. How she commands attention in MALEFICENT defines star power, which, despite the the number of actors dubbed stars, is a rare trait.

Unfortunately the revisionist fairy tale doesn’t have much else working in its favor. The alternative view of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, by way of Broadway’s WICKED, does little more than provide a slight backstory to humanize Maleficent and revise her actions to make them appropriate for the misunderstood and ostensible hero of a family film. Director Robert Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton hint at darker shades in the narrative--MALEFICENT could be interpreted as a rape revenge story--but redeem the character for general audience acceptability.

The winged, orphan fairy Maleficent lives in a magical kingdom that borders on a human village with which there is sometimes conflict. She is suspicious of outsiders and indeed one day encounters a peasant boy who is attempting to steal from her realm. The two become friends, though, and over time Maleficent and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) become romantically involved until, in his ambition to become closer to the king, he stops coming to see her.

The king fears Maleficent and wants her dead. Although Stefan does not kill his longtime friend, his betrayal wounds her so deeply that when he ascends to the throne and becomes father to a baby girl, she curses the child. Maleficent vows that by the time the sun sets on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and fall into an eternal sleep unless she receives true love’s kiss. Stefan orders all spinning wheels to be collected and destroyed and ships Aurora to the country to be cared for by the pixies Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) until the day after the fateful one promised. Maleficent is often nearby to keep tabs on the child, and as Aurora grows into a guileless teenager (Elle Fanning), she regrets the doomed future she has invoked for her.

Unnecessary THE LORD OF THE RINGS-like battles are front- and backloaded on MALEFICENT, as if the studio feared boys would have no interest without them. The CGI storybook visuals derive from other recent fantasy films, particularly Disney’s live-action ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Aside from the three pixies, who look weirdly off-putting in miniature form, the computer-animated effects create a believable fantasy world while seeming less impressive because of the ubiquity of such work in contemporary cinema. MALEFICENT strangely lacks much drama because it is content to gaze upon Jolie. Her bearing is the film’s greatest effect in a land where a castle, wall of thorns, and mystical creatures exist, but a costume and visage are not enough to make this reformulated fairy tale a story worth telling.

Grade: C

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