Thursday, May 29, 2014


 2.5 / 5 

Like the house built on sand, Maleficent can't stand up to its haphazard construction.  It's always reflecting, but never quite meshing, the random shards of Disney, cinematic and fairy-tale references from which it's made.

There are moments, long moments, when it comes agonizingly close, and every single one of those moments is anchored by the fully committed and sometimes stunning performance of Angelina Jolie as the title character.  This is one of the rare times when the "is" between the star's name and the title is justified: she becomes Maleficent.

Alas, the film itself can't live up to her centerpiece performance.  Jolie's towering efforts deserved a better, more thoughtful, more cohesive movie.

Throughout its relatively brief 97-minute running time, Maleficent is saddled by incessant, plodding narration.  The movie literally tells its story -- for the first 40 minutes or so, there is no character development, just one brief shot after another stitched together with the bland narration that propels the movie forward through sheer force of will.  The first half of the movie feels like a very long prologue.

Even Walt Disney was challenged to create an engrossing momentum for his 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty, which for all its exquisite, undeniable splendor lacked a beating heart at its center.  That movie is a visual feast whose 75-minute length feels padded.  And that's telling the story the "proper" way.

Maleficent wants to approach things differently, in a tone that feels more politically correct than revisionist.  It's a movie entirely fitting with the societal concept that bullying is an awful thing, that everyone deserves respect.  That's not a sentiment I necessarily disagree with -- unless the person being bullied is a mean, terrible, evil person, and let's face it, Maleficent is no sweetheart.  She places a curse on a little baby because she's vain, jealous and bitter.  Why?  I dunno.  She just is.

At least, that's the way I've always heard it.  Maleficent is the bad guy.  Simple as that.  Except nothing is so simple anymore, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who created two terrific villains herself (Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and Scar from The Lion King) wants to explain it all away, to show that Maleficent really is just misunderstood.  This is supposed to result in some type of empowerment, though I'm not sure how.

Take this kind of thinking to its logical end and some pretty awful revisionist history is justified; think of some of the most hateful, evil people who really existed, aren't just fairy-tale villains, and consider that if Maleficent can be seen as having good intentions, they should be due the same courtesy.  That doesn't lead to a pretty place.

So, Maleficent shows us that, despite her dark name (Magnificent + Malevolent = guess what?), Maleficent was just a good little girl living in a wondrous land made up of ideas thrown away during development of Avatar.  There she was, living her life, when she met a human boy, who grew up to be arrogant and greedy and wounded her both in body and soul.

Despite the enormous effort Maleficent makes to explain that wicked thoughts simply don't exist in her benign, fairy-encrusted world, Maleficent moves from being fair of heart to foul in the blink of an eye.

It's one of the more problematic moments in a problematic film (along with a ludicrously conceived climax that has Maleficent quite literally tiptoeing right into a heavily fortified castle).  Although Maleficent claims it will show us what made this good creature turn evil, it never does.  She just goes bad in the blink of an eye.  Though she's never before heard of revenge, it suddenly consumes her life.

The rest of the movie reverse-engineers its way, pretty clumsily, through the Disney version of the Perrault fairy tale.  It sidesteps (just like Maleficent does in that finale) the difficult stuff, like this question: Without spinning wheels how did the kingdom's veritable army of seamstresses make its clothes for 16 years?  And why is a spinning wheel conveniently sitting in the throne room during a royal ceremony?  Worse, it treats the historical "good guys" (the king, his subjects) like true nasties for the sole reason that if Maleficent is actually the heroine, then they must be the villains.  The film foregoes any nuance in favor of trite simplicity.  That may be fine for a kids' film, but isn't this supposed to be an examination of the source of evil?

There at the heart of all of that messiness is Angelina Jolie.

For a solid 20 minutes, despite the inanity around her, she grabs the movie, turns it upside down and shakes it until some genuinely good moments fall out.  She wants us to feel the complexity of this woman, who develops unexpected feelings.  Though I was momentarily confused about her rather convoluted motivations, Jolie does with her face, voice and body what the script can't do with its words: She makes them clear -- and brings authentic, genuine emotion to the role.  She almost had me.

And then comes the thudding CG-infused climax.  In many ways, this isn't a live-action remake of an animated film, it's modern computer animation with a few live-action elements.  It has roaring CG waterfalls, wispy CG flying creatures, towering CG mountains, freakishly unnatural CG fairies, marauding CG armies, impossible CG camera moves, and its soul feels, in the end, equally computer-generated.

But there are those few splendid, quiet, non-CG-enhanced moments when Maleficent gets to know Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), and everything quiets down and really, truly works.  For those moments, Maleficent is almost worth seeing.  Almost.

Viewed May 29, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks



  1. Very good review. Couldn't agree more. I've had a hard time convincing people (and failing), who want to see this movie a some kind of hippie movie and the empowerment of women. This movie is i.m.o. deeply, deeply flawed because it betrays one of the most iconic villains from the Disney Library who is evil just for the sake of being evil.

  2. It certainly betrays the strength of the underlying story: That there is evil in the world and good can vanquish it. That may be a simplistic message, but the stories are intended for children, not adults. Fairy tales help teach the basic hierarchy of the world, and maybe it says something unpleasant about the current state of things that a simple "good vs. evil" message isn't enough anymore. I had trouble with "Maleficent" being about "empowering" women (or anyone else) since ultimately Maleficent does what is always done in movies: She uses the very violence she once abhorred in order to get her way.