Release Date: 30th of May 2014
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Director: Robert Stromberg
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, Sam Riley
Having magically wrung every penny from their branded line of princesses, Disney are now attempting to repeat the trick with their famous villains. Enter Maleficent. Wreathed in green smoke, crowned with big horns and possessed of cheekbones sharp enough to prick your finger on, Maleficent – the ‘Mistress of All Evil’ – was first seen cursing an infant in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. Now, fifty-five years later, Disney are retelling the classic tale from the iconic villain’s perspective with Angelina Jolie cackling, scowling and brooding in the lead role.
The film opens with Maleficent as a young girl, leading an idyllic life relaxing in trees and soaring through the skies in a magical land of fairies and wonder known as The Moors. In an uneasy truce with the neighbouring kingdom of humans, The Moors is a rustic themed candyland; a shiny colourful realm so sickly sweet you’ll swear your eyes have developed diabetes. In comparison, the fairy tale castle of the humans is a cold, spooky looking nightmare, albeit one festooned with ornate parapets and lush carpets. When a human boy from the castle befriends Maleficent, so begins a story of true love, treachery, revenge and redemption, as our fairy friend grows into the sinister, witch-like figure famous from the cartoon.
Visual effects artist and Oscar winning art designer Robert Stromberg makes his directorial debut on a film with an estimated budget of $180 million; the largest budget for a debutant since Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy. Much like Kosinski, Stromberg has a decent eye and a strong sense of location and production design (who’d have guessed?) but struggles with old fashioned concerns like plot and character. Too often characters fade into the overwhelming and stylised background and long stretches of the film seem more interested in the place than the people who populate it. Aside from Angelina Jolie in the title role, the cast are all either annoying (Staunton, Manville and Temple as the three fairy Godmothers) befuddled (Sam Riley as a shapeshifting crow) or – in the case of Sharlto Copley’s surly king – bizarrely Scottish. They’re a uniformly unengaging bunch and pale in comparison with Jolie’s vengeful fairy.
The main problem is that Maleficent is only really interesting when Jolie is scowling and being evil and that’s something that she doesn’t get to do for very long. In fact, it could be argued that she never really turns evil at all. Instead she gets angry, lashes out and regrets it all for years afterwards making this more like drunk dialling than a vicious campaign of revenge. Making a film from the villain’s perspective is only interesting if they are actually villainous and the lack of a real antagonist for most of the film leaves a deep, dark hole at the core of it. It then scrabbles about trying to find a baddie in time for the inevitable, and slightly disappointing, slash-em-up at the climax of the movie.
Despite a strong lead performance by Jolie (after a four year absence from the screen it’s good to see her back) Maleficent is a weak and watered down version of a popular story. Perhaps it should’ve been called Dozing Beauty.