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Maleficent Fails in an Unexpected Way

Saturday, May 31st, 2014 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

maleficent posterMaleficent (2014)
Directed by Robert Stromberg. Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Ella Purnell.

Sometimes, we need the fictional villains in our life to just stay evil. Forget sympathy for the Devil: I don’t want sympathy for the Red Skull, the T-1000, Michael Myers, the Joker, Auric Goldfinger, the Dark Lord Sauron, or King Ghidorah.

I especially don’t want sympathy for the Mistress of All Evil, Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. So few movie characters so relish evil for evil’s sake like she does. And Maleficent executes this vileness with such stylish vigor!

Maleficent is the unofficial ruler of Disney’s dark parallel to their Princess line, the Disney Villains. And hoo-boy, does Maleficent do a great job at the top of the wicked food chain. This is a creature so evil that getting a birthday party snub hurls her into a generational revenge plot that consumes a kingdom and all her free time. Her design (courtesy of legendary Disney artist Marc Davis) and voice (Eleanor Audley) emphasize the beautiful allure of evil to make the Middle Ages proud. As bonuses, she has a crafty raven sidekick and can transform through a mushroom cloud explosion into a black and purple dragon that blasts green flames. Give the dark lady a hand!

So what worse way to foul up Maleficent than to try to explain in a feature length film how she got so evil?

Amazingly, Disney found a worse way.

Based on the trailers, I anticipated the new live-action Maleficent was going to make the same mistake as Rob Zombie’s maligned Halloween remake and provide too much backstory for a character who needs none. Although Maleficent does err in this direction, the comparison doesn’t truly fit. Instead, imagine a Batman film where the Joker becomes Batman’s closest ally, tries to help the hero overcome the grief of his parents’ death, and then aids Batman against a psychotic Jim Gordon who wants to viciously gun down Gotham’s protector. And by the way, Jim Gordon is the one who killed Batman’s parents all those years ago.

Wait, scratch that. It sounds too interesting. I can’t say that about Maleficent’s script-flip.

In this iteration, Maleficent is not an anti-hero, nor a tragic villain, nor anything else so nuanced or challenging. For the second half of the running time, Maleficent is the no-excuses hero. This is what actually occurs in the movie. It’s utterly bizarre that Disney would do something so drastic and undermining to one of their most beloved properties. Another studio exploring this reverse-villain concept à la Wicked (without a trademarked character like Maleficent) is understandable. This feels like Disney trying to kill their own IP.

Maleficent cannot avoid comparisons to the 1959 animated film, and that’s not a position in which any film should place itself. Sleeping Beauty isn’t the finest movie from Disney Animation Studios — it has a few dull stretches, and Aurora is the least of the princesses in the canon — but it’s no doubt the studio’s most gorgeous movie. I would place it on a short list for most beautiful movie of all time along with entries like Barry Lyndon and Days of Heaven. The tsunami of indelible imagery in Sleeping Beauty drowns its flaws. The opening few minutes alone appear like a Medieval tapestry come to multi-planar life and there’s yet to be a movie shot in 3D that can match the dimensional effect achieved through this 2D hand animation. I could fill up three posts just gushing about how wonderful Sleeping Beauty looks, going almost frame-by-frame.

Poor Maleficent looks dreary and cluttered beside its inspiration. Like so many recent live-action fantasy movies, the art direction team went over the top trying to create a fairy-tale world and instead crafted a massive junk-heap that is tiresome to look at. The numerous cartoonish beasties that live in Maleficent’s moorlands look fit for a computer animated film (How to Train Your Dragon popped to mind more than once) and do not fit into the movie’s general design. And the three good fairies are ghastly in their winged form: disturbing bobble-heads that are either funny or nightmare fuel depending on your state of mind. The three characters are aggravating in their human shapes, but at least they look better than these CGI monstrosities.

maleficent-imax-poster black gate reviewBut all these problems are trivial compared to the obstacle the film created for itself when it set out to reinterpret an established character by changing what everyone liked about her.

Maleficent’s new backstory, a frolicking winged fairy (played by Ella Purnell) who falls for the human prince Stefan, only to later lose her wings when the older Stefan (Sharlto Copley) needs to prove himself to his father, isn’t all that rotten. The movie has some kick to it during these first twenty minutes, and even if the progression of Maleficent from gentle to aggressive occurs with jarring abruptness — it seems like a few key scenes were cut — there is at least the sensation of an intriguing alternate history developing. This new origin could have made the start of the evil and beautiful villain we all love.

Then the movie plunges into the actual story of Sleeping Beauty and starts down the road of making Maleficent into Princess Aurora’s protecting fairy godmother and a fantasy action hero. The result is Maleficent becomes dreadfully… boring. Once her villainy vanishes, there is a sad and drab ordinariness to the character. Maleficent makes a poor heroine; she simply doesn’t have the necessary qualities, and wasn’t designed for the role. This is like expecting a relief pitcher to hit home runs: that’s not the position’s job.

The film teases a scattering of good ideas after expending itself in the opening. Maleficent starts to watch over Aurora because the three good fairies are too incompetent to handle caring for a human child. Since Maleficent’s curse cannot take effect if the child dies before her sixteenth birthday, the dark fairy has to protect Aurora from afar with the help of the raven Diaval (who can turn into Sam Riley, a decision that isn’t as awful as it sounds). Although this story change removes a basic suspense element of the original, which is that Maleficent doesn’t know where the fairies have hidden Aurora, it makes sense for a villain who likes to work the long game. The Mistress of All Evil would want to make sure her full plan plays out, or else why come up with such a strange curse to begin with?

The film’s one strength that improves on the animated original also comes out during this stretch of the film: Elle Fanning as Aurora. The original animated Aurora is a cypher and a weak character whose lack of screen time feels done on purpose. Fanning, an actress with great charm and a wonderful career ahead of her, gives Aurora the necessary spark to feel worth the Disney Princess line. She also has great chemistry with Angelina Jolie and the early prickly relationship Maleficent has with the young girl contains the best work from both actresses. Yes, there was something interesting happening here.

But these are a few moments in a drab and dull tale with a main character who is fundamentally wrong. None of the fantasy action that crops up to keep the story physically moving helps at all. The movie can’t even pull off a remotely exciting dragon at the finale. You’ve seen this all before and done far better. Even Snow White and the Huntsman executed this in a more interesting way — although Elle Fanning could wipe out Kristen Stewart in the charisma department any day of the week.

A strong director might have pushed Maleficent past the mistakes of its concept, but first-time director Robert Stromberg, a VFX designer who worked on Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, was apparently hired to bring no vision to the film at all and step out of the way of the Disney executive machine. Fanning and Jolie function fine as performers without directorial input, but the rest of the film suffers from the lack of a strong hand on the rudder.

Angelina Jolie was the best choice for the title role, and the boring characterization isn’t her fault. She cannot surpass the Marc Davis/Eleanor Audley original, nor does the film give her the chance to do so the way that Elle Fanning is allowed to better her animated counterpart, but Jolie is definitely giving the role her all. She’s as good a live-action Maleficent as could have been crafted, and once more the film that could have been peeks through the pixelated dreariness.

Despite the company’s efforts, Disney won’t succeed in damaging the Maleficent IP. The new movie will make money, but come October, when the Mouse House re-releases Sleeping Beauty to Blu-ray, Maleficent will likely change into an embarrassing memory. This is a short gain for Disney in terms of profit, and I hope the studio realizes its error, picks up the cash, and then lets Maleficent live on as the Evil We Need.


Ryan Harvey is a veteran blogger for Black Gate and an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author who knows Godzilla personally. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” appeared in Black Gate online fiction. All these tales take place in his science fantasy world of Ahn-Tarqa. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, the prologue to the upcoming novel Turn Over the Moon, is currently available as an e-book. You can keep up with him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com, and follow him on Twitter.

23 Comments »

  1. I find this review to be completely WRONG. I find that this review fails in an unexpected way. I also find that this review is drab and dull, with a main character who is fundamentally wrong.

    If you’re not too jaded and downtrodden by the ravages of 21st-Century Reality, you’ll find this movie to be charming, clever, absolutely GORGEOUS, and a fascinating twist on the original “Snow White” tale. It also reflects our modern world–which is all about shades of grey instead of black-and-white evil vs. good.

    Don’t let this review stop you–go see it for yourself (in 2D) and make your own decision.

    And that’s my two bucks.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - May 31, 2014 8:02 pm

  2. Hi John! Your opinion is welcome here.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - May 31, 2014 8:06 pm

  3. That’s why I love ya, Ryan. :)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - May 31, 2014 8:31 pm

  4. Ah, as long as we’re good! (And remember, we stand defiant together on supporting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!)

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - May 31, 2014 8:35 pm

  5. You call him Doktah Jones, Lady!!!

    Comment by John R. Fultz - May 31, 2014 10:23 pm

  6. Hey, could you guys come over to my house when my geek brethren are hanging out – I’m tired of being the only one defending Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!

    Comment by Thomas Parker - May 31, 2014 11:20 pm

  7. Why would anything with that mine cart chase need defending?

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - May 31, 2014 11:38 pm

  8. I could defend maybe 95% of Temple of Doom. As long as nobody tries to defend Crystal Skull.

    And who’ll join me in support of the second & third Matrix movies?

    [hears crickets; sees tumbleweed blow past]

    Comment by Joe H. - May 31, 2014 11:58 pm

  9. Maybe the Spambot that just posted a “Make Money Online Fast” comment will defend Crystal Skull.

    Joe, I’ll go with you on the Matrix sequels as far as the car chase in the second. Tumbleweeds from then on.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 1, 2014 12:49 am

  10. The original had its flaws, too and although I haven’t seen this version yet- on the basis of another review – it mimics the flaws of the original to some degree. Nothing happens for the first three-quarters of movie, then (in what seems like the last ten minutes, if even that) we get the forest of thorns, Maleficent turning into a dragon etc. Maleficent was a great villain, but every other character sucked.

    I wasn’t aware ‘The Temple of Doom’ had its detractors. Amongst my peers it’s regarded as easily the best of the trilogy (I won’t dignify ‘The Crystal Skull’ by including it).

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - June 1, 2014 6:15 am

  11. I find this review to be completely WRONG. I find that this review fails in an unexpected way. I also find that this review is drab and dull, with a main character who is fundamentally wrong.

    I find this response to be completely wrong. I find that this response fails in a totally expected way. I also find that this response is drab and dull, with a main character who is fundamentally wrong.

    Comment by Hospitaller - June 1, 2014 11:56 am

  12. Hospitaller: I’m rubber and you’re glue…

    Nanny nanny boo boo

    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 1, 2014 6:06 pm

  13. Hospitaller, that’s just John’s review style, my feelings weren’t hurt or anything. I am glad you like the review.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 1, 2014 9:00 pm

  14. “…that the great debate goes on and you will contribute a verse…” –Walt Whitman

    “It’s ALL good…” –Homer Simpson

    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 1, 2014 9:31 pm

  15. “DOH!” –Homer Simpson

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 1, 2014 9:48 pm

  16. Joe H., you may be on your own with Matrix 2 and 3 (Matrices 2 and 3?), but there were some fine bits in the Animatrix short films.

    Regarding Temple of Doom, I do wish Kate Capshaw’s character shrieked less. Every time I thought I was about to start enjoying the film, she’d have another round of shrieking, and I’d have distracting arguments in my head with Spielberg about what makes a worthy leading lady in an adventure film. She was splendid singing “Anything Goes” in Chinese, but went steadily downhill as a character every time the script made her speak.

    Was the rest of the film really good enough for me to rewatch it, shrieking and all? It’s been a while since I gave it a chance.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - June 2, 2014 1:37 am

  17. Ryan,
    Did we see the same movie? Stefan was the son of a farmer, not the king’s son. He wants to live in the palace and rule the land. The old king will give him his daughter and his kingdom if he kills Maleficent. He can’t kill her so he tricks someone who loves and trusts him into drinking a sleeping potion and then cuts off her wings so that she can’t fly up in the clouds anymore—all because of his ambition. He was the real evil in that movie.

    Maleficent wasn’t an innocent in the movie either. She had been mutilated so I could understand her anger and her pain. It should have been directed toward the person who harmed her not the child. The relationship between Aurora and Maleficent thrived IMO because Aurora reminded Maleficent of herself when she was growing up in that enchanted land. The old King wanted that land for his own—kinda reminds me of how indigenous people are treated when *civilization* moves in. I thought the movie had two flaws: (1) not enough screen or story time for the baby’s mother and (2) putting the spinning wheels in the basement of the castle? Puhleez! All in all though I enjoyed it. The theater was filled with families and lots of children. I was amazed at how quiet and enthralled they were. In the confrontation scene between Stefan and Maleficent toward the end, a little girl about 6 or 7 climbed up on her dad’s lap. He was sitting next to me and I saw her watch the rest of the movie in the safety of her father’s arms.

    Sounds like some of you liked Temple of Doom a lot more than I did. I read right after the movie was made that Lucas had asked both Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg what they wanted in this Indiana Jones movie. Ford said elephants and Spielberg wanted a Busby Berkeley number. I thought that explained the hodgepodge effect in the script. After Marion in the first movie, Willie was a big letdown. Kate Capshaw is beautiful but her acting wasn’t in the same league as Karen Allen’s. Not only was her screaming scene annoyingly long, it was exasperating to watch both Indy and Shorty ignore it. The script was based in part on Gunga Din which is one of my all time favorite movies and I guess in that case I do prefer the original. :)
    Barbara

    Comment by Barbara Barrett - June 2, 2014 5:24 am

  18. Well, I guess it depends on how seriously you take the characters! Or how representative you think Willie’s character is meant to be of women in general (or Spielberg’s perception of them). I’d be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, partially because Karen Allen’s character in the previous movie was the complete opposite of Capshaw’s in every respect, partially because any mismatched pairing is comedic gold – for my money, Willie’s behaviour has more to do with her being completely out of her comfort zone than with her gender. I think the opening scenes of this film (right up to the point where they arrive at the village) were worth the price of admission alone and I think the film has a visual cohesiveness that the other two lack. Critically (for me) the first film was too frenetic, the third film a re-tread of tropes explored in the first two, whereas ‘Temple of Doom’ finds that elusive happy balance.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - June 2, 2014 6:49 am

  19. Can we skip Maleficent and rewatch Temple of Doom?

    I also have to make a terrible confession, I sort of enjoyed Crystal Skull. Despite the films many flaws, I thought it captured the spirit of bad 1950 Movies very well.

    Comment by Khovin68 - June 2, 2014 2:26 pm

  20. Oh, snap, Ryan. You’ve re-ignited the eternal Temple of Doom debate! :)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 2, 2014 10:45 pm

  21. At least we can all agree on Crystal Skull. Although I did like the college chase sequence. That was enjoyable. And the John Williams theme for the Crystal Skull is fan-freaking-tastic.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 3, 2014 1:36 am

  22. I think they did two things right with Crystal Skull: They set it in the 1950s so Indy was the right age, and they brought back Karen Allen. OK, and yes, the college chase. Three things.

    Temple of Doom was a mostly good movie just with a couple of regrettable choices — Shrieking Willie, the banquet at Pankot Palace and a couple of other entirely gratuitous moments, the specifics of which escape me.

    Comment by Joe H. - June 3, 2014 7:13 am

  23. Yes, there are a few choices about Temple of Doom I can’t defend. What I do love about the movie is how it is so willing to push Indy into utter hell and go gruesomely dark before Indy claws back up, and then the film unleashes a brilliant 45 minute continuous action scene that captures that breathless one-thing-after another quality of the serials. Also, Mola Ram is such a terrific villain, and the mine cart chase is the a superb example of practical effects work.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 3, 2014 10:39 am


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