Movie Review: Maleficent (2014)- A Cynical Attempt from Disney to Create a New Callous Brand Resulting in an Unfortunate Display of Shallow Character Origin

maleficentNo one will ever forget the first time they saw the infamous embodiment of evil in the character Maleficent, the prominent antagonist of Disney’s animated mixture adaptation of Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty” and the Brothers Grimm tale “Little Briar Rose.” Maleficent’s haunting demonic witch figure and commanding voice in Sleeping Beauty (1959) instilled a rightful fear within and her dark visage, vengeful curse, and sadistic laughter still holds as a standard for cinematic evil. As tempting as it is to create a revisionist mythos to the infamous fairy tale sorceress (or fairy depending on the source material) due to her pigeonholed status as an emotionless villain that revision should be one with purpose told with psychological grace and emotional diligence. However, that isn’t the outcome with Disney’s latest formulaic visual romp Maleficent as it turns a potentially intriguing twist on concept into a visually extravagant but narratively insufficient uneven mess thanks to the first time director faults of special effects master Robert Stromberg and the laughably obtuse script from Linda Woolverton. In Disney’s rushed attempt to cynically capitalize on what appears to be a potential in selling new Maleficent themed hats at Disneyland they ruin the already established lore of the fairy tale character in a faulty presentation with inconsistent tonal shifts on par with other lackluster and pointless Disney updates, such as Tim Burton’s painful Alice in Wonderland (2010) (also written by Woolverton) and Sam Raimi’s exhaustingly bad Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013). Maleficent attempts to utilize the darkly enchanting presence of Angelina Jolie along with the arguably muddy and inconsistent state of the art special effects as a distraction but it just isn’t enough to glibly ignore the unfulfilling narrative that lacks substantial character development, motivation, and existence making the film an unsatisfying telling of an alternate character history. Even at a relatively short running time of 97 minutes Maleficent feels laboriously sluggish as though it has suffered its own spell of death like sleep finding a visual parallel to that of Sleeping Beauty herself, a dazzling image that is impossible to truly hold. Whatever the intention was in revisiting the origin of the famed evil fairy it’s hopelessly lost in a sea of uninspiring special effects, Stromberg’s messy direction, and a script that is so horrifically thought out it makes a cursed spindle look forever stationary.

Attempting to contemplate the intention of creating an origin story for Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) will certainly perplex those willing to think about the misdirection of Linda Woolverton’s script because there doesn’t seem to be a valid reason ingrained in the awfully structured narrative. Could the intention be to give an explanation on the evil displayed in the original Sleeping Beauty (1959)? There’s some semblance of that in the structure of the script but Woolverton’s lack of ability to capture some psychological substance to the character mixed in with groupings of scenes that drastically shift in tone make it seem as though there was no substantial intention on giving a legitimate reasoning to Maleficient’s erratic actions. Take for instance her cursing the innocent Aurora (Elle Fanning) due to a vengeful attitude of betrayal towards Aurora’s father King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and yet watches over the young girl her entire life protecting her from her moronic overseers giving her character a bit of an unbelievable shift of intentions. Could the intention be to make Maleficent a female empowered character of complex emotions and motivations? Unfortunately that can’t be it either since it diminishes the potentially feminist slant by making her snap in vengeful moodiness over the betrayed actions of a man (this was the exact same motivation for the Wicked Witch of the West in Oz, The Great and Powerful). Nothing ever really makes sense in the script, such as Maleficent being a kind and carefree overseer of an enchanted world who just happens to have the most evil sounding name in existence, and most of the convenient staging of the narrative isn’t really explained well. The character of Maleficent is so prominent in the script that the real downfall of the entire film stems from the fact that her character has zero genuine connection to any other character on the screen from her betrayed love in King Stefan to her winged Raven companion Diaval (Sam Riley) to her odd fairy godmother relationship with Aurora because no other character is properly developed. Woolverton’s script ultimately is shallow in character and consequently shallow in purpose leaving a narrative foundation for Maleficent that doesn’t possess any substantial intention making for a faulty character study, a thoughtless alternate history, and a lost opportunity to poignantly tell a story of maternal repentance (the lost goal) or of villainy explained (what should have been explored).

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Giving a thoughtless script with odd pacing and a complete lack of genuine character development to a first time director is guaranteed to result in a messy display of amateurish choices and visual gimmickry which that appropriately describes Maleficent. Robert Stromberg has never directed a film before though he has been part of the visual effects process for countless films from matte painting for the exceptionally dark Guillermo Del Toro fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to designing visual effects for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Stromberg’s resume is quite extensive on the visual effects front and it makes sense that the visual effects took precedence over story as he fell upon his strength. However, it is surprising that not all of the effects used throughout Maleficent are impeccably delivered as some of the beginning sequences showing a delightful fantasy world are so suffocating in lavishness that it often appears like a bad video game design. On the other hand there are some exceptionally visualized sequences including the infamous cursing of Aurora with the classic green aura of vengeance and when her raven Diaval gets turned into a menacing dragon. But having occasional pretty designs to look at through the entire film doesn’t even begin to track a solid story and this is where Stromberg stumbles in his role as director mostly due to the bland script as his guide. Character interactions become chores to seat through while most of the dialogue is expository garbage delivered with such callousness that the lack of character in anyone else on screen other than Maleficent herself becomes abhorrently evident. As the film languidly carries on with strange uses of humor that highlight the inconsistent tone shifts between Disney comedy and a melodramatic seriousness it just becomes more and more obvious that there was no legitimate consideration for a genuine character tale worthy of revising. Without a good sense of direction and coordinates in a script that are not the closest bit reliable Maleficent simply becomes another addition of shallow storytelling that mistakes the presence of character for actual character depth and falls on visual effect crutches that allows itself to limp to a thoughtless ending thanks to the amateur direction of first time director Robert Stromberg.

Most audiences will walk out with one undeniable fact that Angelina Jolie certainly has an on screen presence and classic look that is hard to match as she graces the character of Maleficent with appropriate mimicry and command. In the script’s hope to give Maleficent a misunderstood origin, while strangely changing the original outcomes of the Sleeping Beauty story defeating that entire purpose, Jolie takes the screen with a complex introduction of innocence betrayed inevitably leading to her descent into what was originally deemed villainous but is now explained as being a magic waving tantrum. The original Maleficent was the embodiment of an evil force who would do anything to achieve her villainous intentions and if that’s the Maleficent you thought’s you’d see a hint of in this revisionist presentation that character is all but vanished in this magic disappearance act of character. Instead we have Jolie’s display of charismatic charm sort of neutering the character instead of giving Maleficent a misunderstood origin where her “evil” actions come rather inconsistently either because she felt betrayed by a man or if she just wants her Raven to just shut the hell up. Interpretation aside Jolie does arguably shine on screen with her devious smile, indented cheek bones, and classic horns capturing some of the classic moments of the fairy tale character with elegance and empowering command. Unfortunately Maleficent is the only attempt at a multi-dimensional character in a cardboard character world as everyone on screen from the wasted talents of Sharlto Copley to the gratingly bland presence of Elle Fanning become laughable. Woolverton’s script makes a majority of the character interactions so emotionless and obligatory that not a single genuine emotion is realized between cast members as Jolie dwarfs everything in her path as a domineering presence. Movies are usually about more than one character and even if the focus is supposed to be only on Maleficent then those characters still need to be fleshed out in order to be appropriate catalysts for her change instead of convenience plot drivers which is the only purpose for every other character in the film. While Jolie might steal the hearts of some nostalgia heavy viewers excited to see the evil fairy be brought to life there isn’t anything substantial to her change or any purpose to her tale being told.

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Disney has been getting continuously cynical in their productions as of late as they treat their content building as expensive glorified commercials for their vertical integration plan which is an appropriate business sense but a numbing creative atmosphere. Maleficent is the latest in their shallow creative updates along the lines of Alice in Wonderland and Oz, The Great and Powerful as they attempt to take a character of villainous prestige and make her into a misunderstood character of depth resulting in a bland and languid 97 minute presentation. Revisiting a character for the purpose of explanation has a worthy conceptual promise to it but that promise goes undelivered with Linda Woolverton’s obtusely written script containing zero character substance combined with first time director Robert Stromberg’s amateurish visual direction. Maleficent loses itself in the presence of Angelina Jolie as the famed evil fairy who rarely invokes the actual presence of evil leaving behind the character we grew up fearing in Sleeping Beauty (1959) for a muddled, erratic, and psychologically simple revisionist origin. In all reality Maleficent is not even close to being an accurate adaptation of the beloved fairy tale nor is it a fresh rendition on the tale because it exhausts itself with the typical blockbuster standard of thin characters, an overabundance of effects, and a dependency on star power that, quite frankly, is becoming obsolete. If you’re venturing for a nostalgic time traveling experience where you can see part of your childhood brought to full fleshed life or if you’re looking for an inventive, psychologically substantial character origin you’ll find neither of those here in Maleficent.

Grade: C-

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