Sunday, June 15, 2014

Maleficent


Grade: 51/C+

Resolved: Angelina Jolie is the greatest living movie star who still hasn’t headlined great movie. She’s done supporting work in stellar films like Kung Fu Panda and the woefully underrated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and given great performances in solid-to-middling films (Changeling, A Mighty Heart, her Oscar-winning work in Girl, Interrupted), but too often she lends her considerable presence to projects that squander a kernel of a good idea. Her latest film, Maleficent, is yet another disappointment, a potentially ingenious but half-realized reimagining that constantly feels like it should be much better than it is.

Jolie stars as the great antagonist of Disney’s 1959 hit Sleeping Beauty, but in keeping with recent fairytale prequels (Wicked and Oz the Great and Powerful to The Wizard of Oz, for example), she’s less evil and more misunderstood. The guardian of a magical realm that neighbors a menacing human world, she’s betrayed by old friend Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who drugs her and cuts off her wings to gain the throne. Furious and horrified, she vows revenge, placing a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora. But as Maleficent watches Aurora (Elle Fanning) grow under the care of three incompetent fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville) and becomes her reluctant protector, she’s faced with conflicting emotions: hatred for a man, love for his daughter; rightful vengefulness and regret for how she’s enacted it.

It’s a terrific concept, not the least for the unsubtle but effective rape metaphor in Stefan’s violation of Maleficent’s trust. Jolie’s work in the aftermath scene is anguished without being overwrought, with her expressive eyes doing most of the work. She’s equally terrific in later scenes where Maleficent affects an outsized villainess persona, intimidating Stefan’s men while marking that she’s wearing a mask to protect herself. That mask gradually slips off in her scenes with Fanning, further subverts the traditional Disney model of beautiful naïf kidnapped by wicked woman into a feminist tale of youthful empathy healing wounds dealt by a cruel male world.

But the film’s most admirable qualities can’t quite overcome the banality surrounding it. The script, by Disney veteran Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and, ugh, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland), feels like either a promising but unfinished first draft or a heavily compromised one, as the film rushes whole acts (Stefan’s change from friend to monster, Aurora’s childhood). Neophyte director Robert Stromberg, the Oscar-winning production designer of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland (ugh again), doesn’t have the imagination to make up for it, piling on the his same CGI-overload that overwhelmed Alice and (the still underrated) Oz the Great and Powerful. He otherwise seems content to reproduce the look of Sleeping Beauty and layer over a syrupy James Newton Howard score. And while the film humanizes Maleficent, it also provides a new one-note villain in Stefan, played by Copley with the same terrible, hammy instincts that have typified his post-District 9 villain work. Jolie’s performance and the film’s conceit are strong enough to partially compensate for the film’s frequent missteps, but Maleficent remains a film at odds with itself, too afraid of alienating the core audience to be as bold as it wants to be.

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