To start, in no way whatsoever, am I the target audience for Maleficent, Disney’s latest fairy tale "re-imagining." Despite this glaring fact, there is still a chance, however slim, that I could actually like the movie. But as chance would have it, I do not. Not even a little bit.
Maleficent is the latest in an ever-growing string of so-called “dark” fairy tale re-imagings/prequels that includes Oz, the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood, and not one, but two Snow White films, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. And while none of these films were not particular good either, they almost all made a tremendous amount of money. And in Hollywood, that means an impending genre overload as more of the same are on their way, such as Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Peter Pan.
But back to the latest film on hand – Maleficent. At first glimpse, a seemingly promising approach to the classic fairy tale genre, the film retells the well-known story of Sleeping Beauty, but this time around, from the so-called villain’s point-of-view. The "true" story as the film's marketing would have you believe.
And who better to play one of Disney’s most memorable and menacing villains than Angelina Jolie, whose exotic beauty, high cheekbones, and intimidating aura have long since made her a dead ringer for the famed villainess? Well, as expected, Jolie is deliciously delightful in the role, with a fitting mix of commanding presence, biting humor, and playful evilness that carries the movie as far as it can. Unfortunately, that is the truly real positive thing to say about the film.
Elle Fanning, who is a terrific young actress, is not given much to do other than look cute and innocent as Aurora aka Sleeping Beauty. Sam Riley is solid in a rather thankless role as Maleficent’s lone henchman. The three fairy godmothers – played by Imelda Stauton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville – are supposed to be a bit of comedic relief, but provide only a few brief laughs before they start to get on your nerves. But most disappointing of all is Sharlto Copley as King Stefan, Aurora’s father and Maleficent’s long ago, spurned love interest. The South African actor, who was brilliant in District 9 and mediocre in everything else since, is dreadfully lackluster as the bitter and increasingly paranoid king - and with a terrible Scottish accent tacked on as well. The film drags whenever he is on-screen, though thankfully he is not around too much outside of the beginning and end.
Outside of the actors, as you would expect, the film relies on grandiose special effects which are actually quite good. The look of the film – with all its fairies, magical beasts, and sprawling kingdoms – ultimately lies somewhere in between the grittier, ominous feel of Snow White and the Huntsmen and the cutesy, Technicolor explosion that is Oz, The Great and Powerful.
The action scenes, however, are unevenly executed by first time director Robert Stromberg and filled with jarring, and mostly unnecessary, edits. Given Stromberg’s extensive and impressive background in visual effects/art direction (Avatar, Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland), it is no surprise that film looks stunning. But given his relative lack of experience at the helm, it is also no surprise that the film has its fair share of faults. The story is streamlined down to its quickest, easiest, and most accessible version that never does anything even remotely surprising. On top of that, the film somehow manages to get bogged down despite its breezy 90-minute runtime.
Even with its storytelling twist, Maleficent is still first-and-foremost a classic fairy tale. And despite its supposedly “darker” take on the tale, the film is tailor-made for kids, especially young girls. Maleficent, the so-called villain, reveals not too long into the film that she is actually not very evil at all, just temporarily misguided. Let’s be real here, there is no way Disney would ever put out a movie where the audience did not root for the main character. But unfortunately, Maleficent (and a more-than-game Angelina Jolie who brings her to life) cannot elevate this rather grandiose, but rather uninspired film.
* * out of 5 stars
Maleficent opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, May 30 and locally at The Theatres at Canal Place, Prytania Theatre, Chalmette Movies, The Grand 14 at Esplanade, and all three AMC Palace theaters (Elmwood 20, Westbank 16, and Clearview 12).
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