Maleficent Directed by Robert Stromberg; written by Linda Woolverton; with Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Lesley Manville, Isobelle Molloy, Ella Purnell, Imelda Staunton, Sharlto Copley, Brenton Thwaites
In recent years, a series of movies have offered us revisionist retellings of famous fairy tales. It is perhaps a sign of the times that most of these new versions have focused on the dark side of the old tales in question, emphasizing their villains more than their virtuous heroines (e.g., “Mirror Mirror,” starring Julia Roberts as Snow White’s evil stepmother). These movies joined the recent wave of fantasy films that have made up-to-date and at times clever use of old myths (the most prominent example being the “Twilight” movies). What makes these cinematic tales even more fascinating is that they are additions to an extensive theoretical literature examining the fairy tales’ influential and much- repeated components through the perspectives of history, mythology, psychoanalysis, feminism and more.
Each time I go to see one of these films, I hope for an original interpretation that will enhance the fine scholarship on the subject, and each time I am disappointed anew. That was my experience yet again while watching “Maleficent,” the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, a set and special-effect designer with two Oscars under his belt (for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” yet another attempt to retell a particularly complex tale – which failed miserably). He was also involved in the visual effects of “The Hunger Games” and “Life of Pi.”
Visually, the movie is indeed magnificent – even if I did find the physical metamorphosis of the lead actor, Angelina Jolie, somewhat opaque and alienating. I did not understand why Jolie, who has the loveliest and most expressive face on the contemporary screen, had to be transformed physically; it only turned her into yet another special effect and squandered her acting ability.
The use of 3D also seemed to me unnecessary, as it does today in most films. Stromberg’s use of this technology, with the help of longtime cinematographer Dean Semler, is less sophisticated than the movie’s overall design. But it is on the level of plot that “Maleficent” is most deficient: the structure of the story is uneven, the writing clichéd, and the interpretation of “Sleeping Beauty” elementary and often clumsy.
One of the virtues of “Maleficent” is that its plot is condensed into a mere 97 minutes, but this condensation also sometimes makes it seem like a somewhat sloppy screenwriting patchwork. The movie directly alludes to Walt Disney’s animated 1959 “Sleeping Beauty,” even going so far as to recreate scenes from that earlier picture (which I watched again before seeing Stromberg’s film). The focus, however, is not on the sleeping princess but on the fairy who cast the evil spell on her. “Maleficent” tells her story, following her metamorphosis from a happy girl into an evil woman yearning for redemption (while short in comparison to most of the summer spectacles, the movie is still long enough to allow not only Jolie but also two young actors, Isobelle Molloy and Ella Purnell, to play Maleficent as a child and a teen).
No more than a figure
The screenplay by Linda Woolverton (who has written a number of Disney pictures, including “Beauty and the Beast”) situates the plot between two kingdoms, one ruled by humans, the other populated by fairies, trolls and other mythical creatures. A cruel betrayal that includes a physical assault akin to castration is what sets the plot in motion, turning Maleficent from a happy teenage girl into a vindictive fairy. She curses Aurora (Elle Fanning), the 16-year-old daughter of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), the man who betrayed her years ago and has since become monarch of the neighboring kingdom (five-year-old Aurora is played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter).
Aurora’s role in the movie is small, and that of her prince (Brenton Thwaites) is even smaller; the focus is entirely on Maleficent and her schemes. Jolie, to her credit, fills the movie with her intensive presence, but she does not get the opportunity to do much more than that. It’s been years since Jolie played a dramatic role that gave adequate expression to her abilities, which we have not really seen her display since Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart” (2007) or Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” (2008). That’s a shame; perhaps she now prefers to expend her dramatic energies on the films she directs. Even when playing a part like this one, which does not give her the chance to be more than a figure in the movie’s landscape, Jolie has a unique quality as an actress and film star, far beyond anything her contemporaries can bring to the screen. Although that quality is largely cold – quite suitable in “Maleficent” – Jolie is riveting, even in such a bizarre incarnation as this one.
The main problem with the film is that its retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” does not fully develop its own revisionist potential. There are some lovely scenes, but also some unnecessary ones – such as the battle, whose only function is obviously to add a touch of action – and its plot collapses into blandness as it unfolds. The strongest memory the movie leaves behind is of the visual design, and that’s not enough.
Fairy tales are fertile ground for an ideological debate, and in that sense “Maleficent” disappoints. It gives us a new version of one of the predominant tales in our collective memory, but does so without much sophistication and certainly without adding anything of value to the historical perspective on fairy tales, of which “Sleeping Beauty” is surely one of the most interesting. Conceptually as well as emotionally, “Maleficent” itself seems beautiful but half-asleep.