2014’s summer movie offerings are just getting their start, so bring out the critiques! Disney’s entry continues their recent tradition of taking a time-honored classic animated feature and turning it into a live-action/CGI amalgamation that is sure to intrigue the millions who grew up with the original film. Maleficent casts Angelina Jolie as the title villain, known to just about every man, woman and child as the evil sorceress who curses Sleeping Beauty, transforms into a green-fire breathing dragon and is ultimately defeated by Prince Philip.
But that’s not what happens here. It’s difficult to review this film without giving away the plot, so there may be spoilers ahead.
Maleficent, a strong, compassionate, young and beautiful fairy (one of a kind) is introduced as a healer of sorts who lives in the magic-heavy Moors, ruled by no one creature. Everyone lives in harmony and relative happy-go-luckiness albeit with an ominous tension towards the human kingdom that borders their lands. The human king, believing boundless treasure exists in fairyland, plots and schemes endlessly to take the lands for its riches and convinces his successor to do the same. Greed (a little too easily) wins over trust and love, and prompts a scorned Maleficent to take revenge upon the new king, thus cursing his daughter Aurora.
Instead of continuing on with the prince rescuing the princess as you would expect, the film spends an hour forcing the audience to sympathize with the villain, heavy handed-ly foreshadowing a twist ending that negates not only the original Grimm’s faerie tale, but Disney’s own classic animated version. This isn’t as much of a retelling or a new angle to watch the events from, but more of what comic book readers would refer to as a retcon – a story do-over that allows future stories to be told without fear of continuity issues.
It disappoints in a few other areas too. The 3 faeries from the animated feature go from humble pseudo-heroines to bumbling idiots that prove more a threat to Aurora’s health and safety than Maleficent does. The human king, originally imagined as a noble, caring and honorable ruler gets reduced to a desperate, meth-addict-like despot portrayed by Sharlto Copley (District 9). Princess Aurora, played by a fittingly beautiful Elle Fanning, looks the part (though dark brunette eyebrows and radiant blonde hair don’t mix) but is ultimately uninteresting. Even Jolie’s performance of the dark fairy seems dull at times, though I fault that more to writing because she still manages to carry the film, being one of few reasons to buy a ticket in the first place.
Finally, I felt the CGI, arguably one of the largest draws to see the film, felt phoned it. Had it been a made-for-TV production, the visual effects might have been impressive, but for something with this large of a budget, much of the creature/actor interaction was poorly done. In many cases, like the myriad of creatures in the Moors, characters felt completely out of place and uninspired, rejects from more successful fantasies like the Star Wars franchise or Avatar.
There are a handful of humorous moments and there’s no denying that Jolie is the perfect fit for the title character, but otherwise Maleficent is a lackluster new recipe to a traditional dish that skips over the ingredients that made it tasty to begin with.
[side note] Prior to the film starting, Disney teases the CGI image of a glass slipper and a bejeweled butterfly, not so subtly hinting at a live action Cinderella for 2015. I suspect a horde of singing and dancing CGI mice, at least one fairy, and more than a few shoe-horned plot points not found in the original.