Here is what happens when you hire a visual effects supervisor to direct a Hollywood mega blockbuster about fairytale creatures and dragons and all sorts of imaginative beings: The movie he is hired to direct will look like his showreel, boast extraordinary visuals, and forget that humans tell stories for us, not computers. Maleficent, the directorial debut of visual effects artist Robert Stromberg, is so saturated with CGI that at times it resembles a video game instead of a motion picture. Take away Angelina Jolie and I might as well have gone in carrying a Playstation controller.
Maleficent is billed as a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, Disney’s classic animated musical, and so it is. Little remains from the original movie save for the main players, the main gist of the plot and some of the key narrative devices, like the dreaded spinning wheel of death. Everything else is reworked, enhanced, or completely disfigured. There is also a twist to the fabled True Love’s Kiss that follows in the footsteps of Disney’s runaway champion last year, Frozen, but pales in the comparison.
A narration opens the movie and tells us that there are two kingdoms, one of humans, one of mystical creatures, among whom lives Maleficent (Jolie, sublimely outstanding), a kind-hearted fairy with wings of a falcon and the gnarly horns of a demented beast. The human kingdom wants to invade and conquer the other, and the two sides have been at war since time immemorial.
The human kingdom is a dry and dreary place, made to look very much like a medieval English castle. Not much happens here. The real visual delight of Maleficent is in the creature kingdom, which is littered with all kinds of flying pixies and fairies, some of which make squeaky noises when they fly, others have grown more grotesque and have taken to rolling around in mud pools. I can see why the humans would be interested in taking over this land, but the movie never really explains it. The greedy king seems to be focused on his invasion merely as sport.
But Maleficent doesn’t see it as sport. She has a kind of symbiotic relationship with her land. She can summon anthropomorphic trees from the depths of the soil and call giant warthogs and warriors to her side at a moment’s notice. When she retrieves a stolen gem stone from a human thief and drops it in the water, she isn’t throwing it away, she’s returning it to the land. One can see why she’s so vigorous in her attempts to save it. Even when she becomes bad, her stronghold remains with the creatures she knows.
The human thief is Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who will later become king. Writer Linda Woolverton weaves in a love story that’s kind of touching, kind of perfunctory, kind of bland. Stefan and Maleficent meet as kids, grow up, fall in love, and then fall out of it. Stefan’s goal is not to foster children but to claim the throne for himself. This makes Maleficent mad, and in a fit of rage, she darkens her costume and curses Stefan’s newborn daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and fall into a coma-like sleep forever. One would imagine killing Aurora immediately to be a more productive evil scheme, but clearly the writers think it’d be out of touch with the movie’s source material, and the kids in the audience might come out feeling somewhat violated. Instead, everyone, including the movie, waits 16 years for Aurora to mature.
There are more pleasurable twists and turns to Maleficent that I shouldn’t utter. I’ll let you discover them for yourselves. It is a film well made, with a deep resounding energy and a crispness of vision. Yes, it relies desperately on its visual effects, but Stromberg has a good feel for his characters, who are single-minded and goal-driven, yet take on complex character responsibilities, especially Maleficent, who is not quite as a lot of the older audience members will remember her. That begs the question though: Who is Maleficent’s target audience? It is not grown up enough for the aged fans of Sleeping Beauty, neither is it innovative enough for the newer generation. It sits in limbo, happy to entertain anyone who will sit down to be entertained.
Best Moment | Most of Jolie’s early scenes, especially around her transformation.
Worst Moment | The twist at the end, and the ending itself.