2014’s diminishing returns at the American box office have had movie studio executives bracing themselves for a potential economic collapse with the fervor of a toothless couple on an episode of Doomsday Preppers. In an unstable climate where the major studios are invariably risk averse, it is refreshing to see Disney go out on a limb with a dark fairytale reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. The easy money for Disney would have been to create an epic candy coated princess adventure that would be marketable on t-shirts and happy meals and yet they tried something different. Unfortunately, the films attempt to toe the line between foreboding and lighthearted marketability resulted in an uneven film that is as emotionally impenetrable as the wall of thorns surrounding Maleficent’s kingdom.
The film focuses on a young fairy named Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) who lives in a magical realm next to a human kingdom. In Maleficent’s whimsical world the sky is always blue, the birds are always singing and playful and exotic creatures frolic all across the land. Maleficent’s existence is filled with adventure and bliss until a human boy named Stefan (Sharlto Copley) crosses her path. Despite their mutual love for one another, Stefan’s dark ambitions eventually over take his good-natured spirit and he returns to the magical Moors to betray Maleficent so that he may supplant his king. This act of betrayal crushes Maleficent causing her to become the evil and vengeful character that we know from the classic Disney film “Sleeping Beauty”.
From this point on the narrative is loosely tied to the tale of Sleeping Beauty and the prophecy of a princess being awoken by the kiss of a true love. Along the way, there are enough bumbling
fairies, gritty battles and fire-breathing dragons to ensure that the film has something for everyone in the family. In trying to be a film with such broad appeal, Maleficent does not commit to being anything of substance. Considering that Maleficent is a film based on a villain it never gets very dark. This film is the equivalent of a brooding goth kid sitting across from you on the subway who is secretly listening to a Justin Bieber/ One Direction playlist on his iPod. The warmth of this film never really feels very far removed from its most somber scenes. This would be fine if Maleficent was secretly a lighthearted movie posing as a gloomy one, which doesn’t seem to be true because Maleficent seems to stumble over its lighter elements as well. The film’s futile attempts at levity consist of mind numbing scenes involving blundering Fairies that will have parents rolling their eyes and forlornly gazing at their watches. There is also a poorly realized subplot involving a prince charming character in which the prince and princess have all the chemistry Maleficent’s two dark-fairy horns.
The unevenness of the film also applies to its visuals. Although striking at times the film’s effects were all over the map. The scenes in the magical realm tended to be so bright and spirited that they came across as cartoony and took me out of the film while the cgi tree warriors and fire breathing dragon were dark and menacing enough to feel right at home in a darker Lord Of The Rings style fantasy epic. Angelina Jolie’s makeup is perfectly jarring but never distracting and you feel hypnotized by the character’s every move. Her magnetic presence is one of the few things that the film has going for it.
20 minutes in to this film and I felt as though I were sitting through one long prologue and sadly that feeling never goes away even after the film leaves behind its story-book style narration. Ultimately, that superficial storybook quality ends up holding Maleficent back from being a great film. The film rapidly moves forward at a pace that does not lend itself to character introspection. Rather than having a chance to see these characters evolve, the film presents a window through which to peer at them during their most significant moments. As a result, the characters feel like flat storybook cutouts rather than fleshed out people battling a tempest of emotions, which is quite a waste considering what we have seen Jolie and Copley do in the past. Maleficent is a film that dips its’ toe into the water of something that is dark and intriguing but never has the fortitude to do dive right in.