I have been looking forward to Maleficent with equal amounts of anticipation and dread. On one hand, she is easily my favorite Disney villain, so cold and so pure, and I want desperately to see more of her and her back-story. On the other hand, she is easily my favorite Disney villain, and I would hate to see her parodied, taken lightly or ultimately destroyed in a film that does not understand this great character. The good news is that this film almost gets it right; but that is also the bad news.
From the trailers, I was excited. Angelina Jolie seemed to get Maleficent. She certainly cast the right spell with her presence. She had the look, the stance, the glare, the voice, and most importantly the attitude. In the final film, it is Jolie that works best; Robert Stromberg- a double Oscar winning designer in his first outing as director- gives her plenty of vamp and pose time. What he does not give us is a complete and compelling story.
The basic concept of the film is an inspired slant on the standard Sleeping Beauty tale. The idea that Maleficent is misunderstood, and the fairy we thought was so heinous and vicious is actually benevolent and honorable is fresh and startling; this alone makes Maleficent worth seeing. The sub-story of the wings works well to her motivation and her ultimate redemption. The story did interview itself well with the original story, making both seem plausible depending on your viewpoint.
You can really see Stromberg’s impact on the film. The strong points of the film are the all encompassing environments. The man knows how to get the look, and it is seamless. Perhaps a little heavy-handed on the silhouette shots, the film is eye candy around the perfectly costumed Jolie.
Where the film falls short is it’s rather poorly supported storyline. There are two primary reasons the story seems so jumbled. One is the necessity for the story to fold exactly into the original animated feature Sleeping Beauty, while taking a perspective exactly 180 degrees opposite the animated predecessor. The curse scene for example is almost word-for-word directly lifted from the 1959 classic Disney film (at least the first part). Other scenes- such as when Aurora pricks her finger- are shot for shot live-action recreations of the animated original (and well recreated, too). But when you are tied in to a story seventy years old, a story written with no foreknowledge of where the modern adaption would take it, there are going to be gaps, omissions and other problems as the newer version is shoe-horned into it.
The second problem is the multitude of writers and directors thrown at the project, their various visions for the story, and how they all combine to confuse the direction of the film. Linda Woolverton is a wonderful writer, and you can definitely see her hand in play here. The final scene between Maleficent and and King Stefan plays out almost exactly as she staged the final scene between Beast and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. But for whatever reason, Paul Dini was brought in to rewrite a lot of the movie. And then John Lee Hancock was brought in to straighten the whole mess out, reshooting and rewiting even more.
There are some fine moments in the film, those individual gems that gleam and glisten by themselves but grate against each other. The first battle scene come from nowhere and seem unmotivated except as a means to keep the story moving forward. Maleficent’s motivation for her curse on Aurora is well developed, but then her bonding with the teenage Aurora seems rushed and inexplicable.
It is clear from the rather disjointed story that the script is a hodge-poge of different writers works pieced together. It does not help that a second director was put in at the last moment to pull the whole project together from a wholly different perspective. When combined, these diverse directions the film is pulled in result in an overall aimlessness to the story; the individual scenes may stand well on their own but don’t contribute to a uniform flow and rhythm to the movie as a whole.
It would not have hurt to have seen and heard more from Maleficent herself, too. All to often, she is just seen in shadows, parallel to the action rather than in it. At points, Jolie seemed to be a human visual effect rather than the lead character. Too many scenes are staged just to give her a grand entrance or intimidating presence without a following scene that would allow her to grow the character. She never really got the chance to spread her wings; they were cut off too early in the film.
Visually, Maleficent is stunning, soaring and beautiful. The story and the characterizations have held it back from being a great film. But it is an enjoyable treat none the less. It is wonderful in concept, design and visualization. There were just too many chefs in the kitchen pushing in different directions to have a singular cohesive direction in the story, and the film suffers for it.