With the enormous success of last year’s animated hit Frozen, Disney has finally found a new formula where a supposedly evil character (as seen from Elsa the Snow Queen) is not clearly a bad person but actually a misunderstood villain caught by the unexpected circumstances. This year, Disney attempts to replicate that success in Maleficent, a revisionist take of the iconic title character from the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. No doubt the concept is fascinating, but too bad the movie itself fails to capitalise the potential.
In this “untold” story of the title character, the movie begins with the winged young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) who lives happily in the moors along with other fairies and fantastical creatures. One day, she meets a young boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) and both of them become best friends ever since. But as the years go by, the two kingdoms between the humans and the moors have grown sour. Even the now-adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) has become a power-hungry person and goes as far as drugging Maleficent (now played by Angelina Jolie) and cutting off her wings, for the sake to claim the promotion as a new king from the dying King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). With her wings already gone, Maleficent feels heartbroken and at the same time, vengeful. One day, when she learns about Stefan’s newborn daughter, Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt), she decides to put a deadly curse against her.
As two-time Oscar winner for Best Art Direction in 2009’s Avatar and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, veteran art director-turned-director Robert Stromberg knows well how to make his movie as enthralling as possible. All the technical levels — from the eye-catching visual effects to the exquisite costume design and spectacular art direction — are simply impressive to marvel at. Special kudos also go to veteran makeup artist Rick Baker who did a splendid job creating the evil fairy look of Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent (her sculpted cheekbones are especially worth the high praise).
Speaking of Angelina Jolie, she is perfectly cast as Maleficent. In fact, I couldn’t think anyone else playing such an iconic character other than Jolie herself. She is especially fun to watch for when she gets all wicked with her viciously commanding presence. As Maleficent’s minion Diaval who turned from black crow to human figure, Sam Riley gives a surprisingly sympathetic performance that suitably contrasts against the malevolent nature of Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent.
And yet, Maleficent remains a missed opportunity with Linda Woolverton’s weak screenplay being the biggest culprit of them all. It’s a real pity that the supposedly potential premise is ruined by her haphazard and sketchy storytelling. For instance, the earlier sequence where the war broke out between King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) and his soldiers fighting against Maleficent and her fantastical creatures feel disappointingly vague.
Maleficent also suffers from an inconsistent tone. It tries to be bold and dark but the execution feels blunt. Even the movie’s attempt to lighten up the tone by introducing the three bickering little fairies — Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) — feels strangely out of place.
Another glaring problem is the way Robert Stromberg directed his scenes. At 97 minutes, the movie feels incomplete because Stromberg and his editing duo, Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson, cut away too fast to make way for another scene without taking time to develop the story and the characters. Even the action sequences feel rushed and dare I say, lack of engaging moments.
Apart from Angelina Jolie, the rest of the casts are mostly a letdown. Elle Fanning may look the part with all her angelic smile and wholesome appearance as Aurora, but her role is sadly underwritten. Sharlto Copley is surprisingly wasted as the greedy King Stefan. Worst of all is Brenton Thwaites, with a barely-there performance as Prince Phillip.
No doubt most of the failures that plagued in this movie instantly reminds me of another ill-fated fairy tale movie two years ago called Snow White and the Huntsman. Maleficent could have been a potentially good summer movie, but what we have here instead is another high-concept fairy tale genre suffered from poor execution.