Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 27, 2014)
Every summer, various “tent pole” movies hit multiplexes with predictions of doom and gloom. Sometimes these come true, such as in the case of the 2013 flop The Lone Ranger.
But sometimes the naysayers miss the mark, and we find an example of this via 2014’s Maleficent. With a huge $180 million budget and a questionable target audience, plenty of observers felt the film seemed likely to fail.
Instead, Maleficent found a decent audience. No, its $241 million US gross didn’t set the world on fire, but through the end of October, that figure left it in the year’s top five – and with a whopping $757 million worldwide, the film clearly turned a nice profit.
This means the trend of “hard-edged reimagined fairy tales” popularized with 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman probably won’t abate any time soon. A reworking of Sleeping Beauty, a prologue introduces us to a realm in which two kingdoms – one human, one enchanted – butt up against each other. Inhabitants of the former tend toward a desire for power and greed, while those in the latter – a place called the Moors – live in peace and harmony.
The two realms interact when a benign, beautiful young fairy named Maleficent (Isobelle Malloy) meets a young human called Stefan (Michael Higgins). Maleficent learns that Stefan lacks parents and the two launch into a long-lasting friendship.
However, their relationship eventually takes a turn for the worse. Human King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) leads a war against the Moors and an adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) takes charge of the defense against this intrusion. King Henry declares that the person who kills Maleficent will become the next to ascend to the throne, so a power-hungry Stefan (Sharlto Copley) sets out to accomplish this deed.
In pursuit of this task, Stefan uses their friendship to get close to Maleficent and he renders her unconscious via drugged wine. Despite his desire to become the next king, Stefan can’t quite bring himself to murder Maleficent, but he does cut off her wings so he can “prove” to King Henry that he killed her.
This succeeds, and Stefan – now wed to Henry’s daughter Leila (Hannah New) – becomes king. They eventually bear a daughter they dub Princess Aurora.
During a celebration for the new princess, Maleficent – understandably angry at Stefan - crashes the party and puts a curse on Aurora. On her 16th birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an eternal sleep that can be cured solely by “true love’s kiss”. The rest of the film follows attempts to keep Aurora (Elle Fanning) safe as well as Maleficent’s unlikely relationship with the princess.
As with most of these modern day fairy tale adaptations, fans will see a lot of the “classic version” in Maleficent. When compared with Disney’s 1959 adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, the core tales come with quite a few similarities, especially related to the elements connected to Aurora and her fairy godmothers.
However, Maleficent manages many changes and feels like a “backstory” affair much of the time. It doesn’t go the same path as 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, as that hit told a tale that essentially offered a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Maleficent offers all the same events as Sleeping Beauty but it adds a lot of information about how the characters got there and changes our understanding of the narrative as well.
I like these notions but don’t think Maleficent investigates them in a wholly satisfying manner. Some of that comes from the movie’s running time, as it flies by in a surprisingly brisk 97 minutes. I feel like I usually complain about film’s that last too long, so it seems odd to criticize a tale’s brevity, but given the epic nature of the material on display here, I think added footage would’ve given the flick more scope.
The relatively brief running time robs Maleficent of some depth. The film seems to rush through events so quickly that we barely have the chance to get to know the characters, and that means we feel somewhat disconnected from them. Perhaps the producers figured fans already knew the core tale and didn’t need much exploration of those areas, and maybe they’re correct, but I still think the movie could use a bit more room to breathe.
Despite those areas, Maleficent mostly supplies an entertaining fable, and a lot of the credit goes to Jolie’s delicious performance as the lead. Of course, she chews a bit of scenery – that becomes inevitable with a larger than life role such as this – but she also manages to bring heart and humanity to the part. She turns a classic villain into something quite different and manages to carry the movie a lot of the time. If we found a less capable lead, Maleficent could’ve sunk.
The other actors do fine as well, though some dodgy computer animation mars the project. This becomes an issue largely due to the depiction of the three good fairies. Wisely, the movie makes them “human-sized” before too long and eliminates the need to maintain them as completely CG personalities, but when we see them in that form, they never look convincing. Other uses of CG don’t fare much better, and those elements remain somewhat problematic; someday technicians will pull off consistently realistic artificial characters, but they’re not there yet.
Even with these issues, the movie’s action scenes work nicely. The presence of Jolie again benefits these moments, as she brings power to everything she touches. Even without her, though, the film manages some good punch and excitement when it goes into battle mode.
This mix of ups and downs leaves Maleficent as an inconsistent experience. It shows plenty of room for improvement but still comes with enough positives to make it a reasonably enjoyable tale.