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'Maleficent': One script revision short of perfection



I do so wish I could have given this one its fifth star. Had this been so, I would have sung its praises as being one for the ages. But even as it stands, "Maleficent" delights.

She`s not bad, she`s just drawn that way.
Walt Disney Pictures

Here we enjoy a modern retelling of the classic fairy tale, "Sleeping Beauty", in which infant princess Aurora is cursed by the evil fairy Maleficent, and falls into an eternal slumber undone only by true love’s kiss.

Whereas the original focused on Aurora and later on her savior Prince Phillip, this iteration elucidates the proceedings from the viewpoint of Maleficent, the baddie who started this whole mess to begin with.

Or so we’ve been led to believe, saith this version, which promises to tell us “the truth.” Said truth I shan’t spoil [entirely], but suffice to say that Maleficent was coming from some righteous revenge fantasies when she put the kibosh on poor Aurora. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and this goes a step or two beyond scorn.

"Sleeping Beauty" was always my favorite Disney fairy tale as a child; in my Fantasyland story book (still on a bookshelf), that one’s pages have literally separated from the binding. It likely factors materially into my innate penchant for dragons, and Maleficent was to me the ultimate villain. With that cruelty and those satanic horns, she just scared the bejeebers out of me (I found her even more daunting than would-be puppy-skinner Cruella de Vil, who just struck me as being psychotic). As far as I was concerned, anything that could vanquish Maleficent was fine in my book, and if it came in the form of a dashing prince on horseback, then so much the better.

When seeing Angelina Jolie cast in the role, you might imagine my expectations exceeded high. Combined with the glimpse of the dragon and other apparently sumptuous visuals, I was hoping for elation and prepared for bitter disappointment (direct proportionality being what it is).

"Maleficent" does not disappoint. In fact, it’s quite wonderful. It does slow down (way down) at times, but at such times remember that this is largely a movie for the kiddos, who will be loving these sequences (this isn’t "The Lord of the Rings"). They’re highly visual and linger comfortably in the fairy realm, and youngsters will be enthralled.

Jolie is truly scrumptious as Maleficent herself, and technical execution across the board is all any could hope for, from costume design to special effects (including a dragon so exquisite it rivals – even bests? – Smaug himself). Oscar-winner Robert Stromberg makes a spectacular directorial debut, bringing his celebrated art direction and visual effects experience to the fore, and both the final showdown and the throne room scene in which Maleficent levels the curse could hardly have been better rendered.

With regard to 3D, in this case it’s enjoyable, but not mandatory. The film loses much of its light without commensurate return, so unless you’re a true fan of 3D for its own sake, save yourself the jingle and enjoy it in the vibrancy of 2D. The bigger the screen, however, the better; if you have any interest in Maleficent at all, make a point to see it in the theater at least once. It vibes along the intensity of "Jack the Giant Slayer", and offers something fun for all ages and cinematic objectives.

"Maleficent" is in many ways superb, putting into the world an inspiring, balanced, and “realistic” piece from which little girls can grow, and undoing the real-world curse of the savior prince meme under which both women and men have suffered so long. (It doesn’t devalue that kind of love, it just takes a much more nourishing view of the conversation as a whole).

As for the rumbling that the film takes a dim view of men, such can only be argued if one takes umbrage at the fact that it isn’t a single gallant man who swoops in and makes all things perfect (and honestly, isn’t time we let go of that?). Does Maleficent have issues with men? No. She has issues with one man in particular, and that one man in particular has eminently earned her wrath. Not to condone her methods, but her hostility is hardly misandrous.

Other than that, there’s king who does what kings do when they invade a realm (you do remember the beginning of "Gladiator", no?), as well as a group of customarily male hunters intent on eating crow for dinner (literally – and if you have a problem with that, you are duty-bound to go vegan).

We also have a male individual who holds tender protective affection for our vulnerable young Aurora, and an honorable young prince whom all agree presents her a desirable life partner candidate, assuming of course she’s awake.

So critics, you’re not arguing that it’s poor treatment of men either because a) one has generated some exceptionally bad karma or b) winsome Prince Phillip is just an ordinary handsome and privileged guy, are you? I thought not.

It’s my sincere hope that every youngster enjoy "Maleficent" as soon as they’re able to handle it; it’s PG, so parents please do the recon. (And by the way, "Maleficent" passes the Bechdel Test.)

There’s just one elephant in the room (said the woman who never missed an episode of "Gilligan’s Island" as a child even while remaining ever irked at how four people happened to have a lifetime’s wardrobe and costumes on a three-hour tour).

Where the film falters and loses that fifth star from me is in its handling of Maleficent’s life arc, which here includes a turn from nobility into villainy something in the tradition of Darth Vader. Though having started out as a child and young woman with a “pure heart,” that heart is turned to stone in adulthood by an astonishingly vicious betrayal, driving her to vengeful action with terrible consequences.

The concept makes sense and works overall, but with regard during her times not of the dark side… she looks precisely the same.

It’s an utter and distracting disconnect to give her satanic horns, raven wings, and a name that by its very linguistic root indicates badness (e.g., maladjusted, malignant, malcontent, malfeasance, malicious, malady, malodorous, etc.) and then present her behaving as a flower of noble bearing and goodness.

What - she’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way? Sorry.

Those elements are precisely the devices that convey her villainy, tell us that she is to be avoided at all costs. They’re the very elements that tell us she’s from the same stock as Ravenna, and in the original telling, she most definitely was. So if we’re going to step away from that characterization to any degree, which is fine and makes for a terrific story here, then the expression of that departure must be represented accordingly.

The shame of it is that the issue is so easily handled: start her out with toned-down equipment (say, ibex horns and eagle wings), give her an impish temperament along the lines of Addie Loggins, and name her Mischieficent. Then when the Very Bad Thing happens and she’s justifiably enraged, have her use her powers to transform herself into Maleficent, in the way that Erik became Magneto. Easy peasy, a bunch of additional cool visual effects, and conflict resolved credits to credits.

Had this aspect been handled with more structural integrity, I don’t think I’d be able to say enough about "Maleficent".

But even as it stands, "Maleficent" delights.

Story: Modern retelling of the classic fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" from the perspective of the villainous Maleficent, looking at the events which drove her to curse infant princess Aurora.

Genre: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Romance

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sam Riley, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, Isobelle Molloy, Ella Purnell, Brenton Thwaites

Directed by: Robert Stromberg


Website: Official Site | Official Facebook

Running time: 97 minutes

Houston release date: May 30, 2014

Tickets: Check or your local listings

Screened May 28th 2014 at the Edwards Marq*E theater in Houston TX

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