Maleficent

Posted: June 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews

In Disney’s live-action version of “Sleeping Beauty”, Angelina Jolie displays her powers of villainous acting.

The timeless tale of Sleeping Beauty is one firmly engrained in our psyche, implanted even stronger through our life-long viewing of the Disney classic. Its ageless themes and fairytale-esque charm has ranked itself among the most popular and nostalgic in the Disney archives. But one thing that Disney films in general have always been a bit lax on is proper exposé and depiction of the villains’ duality. The villains—–as useful and functional as they are as working antagonists—–have always been two-dimensional. With Maleficent, Disney seeks to right this wrong by showing us that evil need not always have icy characteristics or be rigid in its ideologies.

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Summary: (No spoilers)
In a faraway land set in a time long ago is the kingdom of men, who are at constant odds with their neighboring land of the fairies. Fearing what he doesn’t fully understand, the paranoid king wages war on them, causing the powerful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie—–Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) to rise up and become the land’s most dominant protector. But when her childhood love Stefan (Sharlto Copley—–District 9, Elysium) betrays her trust in order to ascend to the throne, her once-good nature turns tragically malicious as she quickly becomes the most evil of beings.

When the kingdom eventually celebrates the birth of King Stefan’s daughter, Maleficent extorts her vengeful power on the child by giving her a gift: she will grow in unsurpassed beauty until her 16th birthday when she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death, only to be awakened by true love’s kiss. Fearing for her safety, Stefan sends the child into the forest to live under the protection of three fairies until the day after her 16th birthday. But as Maleficent watches the baby grow into a beautiful young woman, she eventually realizes that Aurora (Elle Fanning—–Super 8) may be the key to the peaceful unification of the two kingdoms.

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Maleficent is a film that breaks new ground, because never before have we seen a villain-centered film. When you really think about it, evil is something meant to compliment a story by differentiating itself from good, providing morality with a nemesis. Think about some of the Disney classics, such as The Lion King: Simba is good because Scar is evil. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White is good because the queen is evil. Evil is the reverse of virtue and is not meant to be a film’s primary focus. Good should always be the focus of the film, while evil is merely the device that makes morality good. But the game becomes a bit trickier when evil is the main factor. Maleficent deals with this particularly difficult plot element by showing the villain before she turned evil, and wrestling with her change of morality throughout the film’s entirety.

The basis for evaluating film is asking the question “can it be better?”—–not only visually and cinematically but, more importantly, story-wise. And the answer from my viewpoint is a resounding yes. Now I realize that every film—–every film—–could always potentially be “better”. But often times, especially with remakes, it’s necessary to step back and examine to determine whether the choices that’ve been made have best serviced the film as a whole.

First off, let’s establish that in all respects this is a Sleeping Beauty remake, the primary difference being that the villain has been made the main character in order to focus on how her story factors into the Sleeping Beauty story. And from a creative standpoint, that was a decision well made on Disney’s part. I appreciate how this film treads new ground. The issue is that the story we all fondly know has been altered.

Now I realize that this is a retelling, and I am never opposed to refreshing a familiar story in order to make it fresh and innovative. But the question being asked is, do these changes serve the film well? While the various plot elements could be picked apart piece by piece and evaluated by several people, all arriving at varied conclusions, I personally felt that the film could have benefited more by a plot closer to the original story; not the original story itself, but something more representative of it than what this film presents.

From a cinematic standpoint this film is visually stunning, which is appropriate given the fact that the director has over 20 years experience in visual effects. The result is a film that stands alongside such other Disney remakes as Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful. And it really does look beautiful.

Maleficent_CGI

Angelina Jolie turns in a magnificent (yes, magnificent) performance. While perhaps not Oscar-worthy, she perfectly embodies the cold, malignant villainess of the animated classic. From her jutting cheekbones and her pale-white skin to her chillingly-mesmerizing voice, Jolie proves that ideal casting is pivotal to a film’s effectiveness. I wish I could report that the rest of the cast were as well-fitted for their roles, but Angelina Jolie simply steals every scene she’s in.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that Jolie’s incredible performance matches the film’s. The main reason is that this rendition of Sleeping Beauty feels like a dumbing down of the original. Think about the animated classic: it had no problem with portraying Maleficent as a pure evil sorceress by showing her malicious cruelty. The film, despite being a G-rated family film, was dark. So why can’t Maleficent—–a PG-rated film—–explore her evil nature by going a touch darker than even the animated film? Why does the G-rated film feel darker and grittier than the PG-rated film? There were so many missed opportunities in the film where we could have seen Maleficent become full-force evil while still retaining traces of her inward morality. Instead, we’re given one scene for Jolie to exercise the character’s true potential before she spends the rest of the film in a lukewarm state of inner conflict.

This complaint is seemingly hypocritical of what I claimed previously, that evil should never be a film’s primary focus. But think about what making Maleficent a darker character would have done for the film. The darker the antagonist, the more noble the protagonist. This is exactly why the prince fighting Maleficent as a dragon in the animated version is such a virtuous character; because he is evil’s adversary. By creating a darker villain, you create a stronger hero. Instead, the overall story in this version is weakened by depicting Maleficent as a could-be-bad-could-be-good character who satisfies her personal vendetta with the king instead of turning into the ferocious dragon that has become so iconic with the story, and by also making the prince a 15-year-old kid who is in the film briefly for the sole purpose of misdirection and a plot twist somewhat reminiscent of Frozen.

Maleficent_Elle Fanning

However, despite my disadvantages with the film, I still acknowledge and truly appreciate what Disney has tried to do with perhaps one of their most popular villains, and I like the underlying premise of the film—–that all evil, no matter how warped or corrupt it may be, is ultimately rooted in good. I understand that this is not meant to be a rehashing of the classic tale nor a violent PG13-rated thesis on evil. It is, at its core, a retelling of a beloved story in the spirit of the hit musical “Wicked”. And the film does have some emotional heart to it. Like Frozen, it strives to debunk the notion laid forth by the classic Disney fairytales that true love and prince charming are the answers to life’s problems, and that there is more than one type of love in this world that can transcend past even the deepest of romantic bonds or the cruelest forms of evil.

In a nutshell:

Maleficent is a visually gorgeous film with a stellar performance by Angelina Jolie and containing some touching moments. While I wish I could say that Maleficent has indefinitely opened the floodgates to other villain-centered films, the underlying truth is that this film truly could be a more impacting story, a film not afraid to cross lines and portray evil in its rawest form like its predecessor. However, despite what it could be, it’s still a fun PG-rated film for families to watch and enjoy together, something that should be valued far more above epic film-making.

 

6 star

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