Monday, June 2, 2014

Maleficent

Robert Stromberg, who has spent the recent years of his career as a very successful production designer (Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland, and Avatar) makes his directorial debut with Maleficent, another in a string of revisionist back-stories from Disney that is visually arresting but poorly written. What Maleficent has going for it that the others didn't is an all-in performance from Angelina Jolie as the titular villain. No actor in 2010's Alice in Wonderland really stood out, and James Franco seemed uneasy in last year's Oz the Great and Powerful; Ms. Jolie's effort, though, is emotional, memorable and keeps the film afloat when it otherwise would certainly sink.

Elle Fanning plays an impossibly chipper princess Aurora in a supporting role. Prince Phillip, who in the animated classic saves Aurora with "true love's kiss", is barely present at all this time around. The red, blue and green fairies (Flora, Fauna and Merryweather) who raise Aurora in the woods have in 2014 been assigned different names and excessively childish personalities; under their care, it's a wonder Aurora survived to her first birthday, much less her sixteenth. And King Stefan is no longer the hopeful father we remember from the 50s cartoon; instead, he is a power-hungry warrior, largely deserving of Maleficent's anger. Even Maleficent's creepy black raven, named Diaval, is no longer the dark enemy we were led to believe. These unfortunate re-characterizations are all in the service of an entirely new mythology that presents Maleficent, perhaps the scariest of all Disney bad guys, in a new, empathetic light as an (albeit strange) mother figure. To be sure, she needed a back-story. The classic film never explains who she is or why she's evil or where she came from. But are these the answers we were looking for? She's not evil at all! In fact, she loves Sleeping Beauty!

It struck us as we were leaving the theater how similarly we felt after seeing Darren Arronofsky's revisionist Noah earlier this spring. That, too, was an entertaining movie that hit a lot of high notes. But we couldn't help but ask after it was over: was this modern re-telling worth changing so many of the source material's details? Did godly Noah need to be brought to the point of infanticide? Did the climactic showdown between Prince Phillip and Maleficent's dragon need to be eschewed for the sake of teary-eyed regret? Probably not.

See Maleficent for Ms. Jolie's performance. See it to puzzle over what parts of Disney's 1959 masterpiece Sleeping Beauty were changed to make this film minimally suspenseful. And see it for the color-blasted 3D CGI fantasy world Maleficent calls home. But don't expect great cinema. The story simply isn't there. We'll end with a note to parents: the film isn't quite as scary as the advertisements would have you believe. The youngest kids will certainly still be frightened by some battle sequences, hence the PG rating, but older kids should be fine. Because Maleficent isn't a villain after all.

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