MALEFICENT Review: Sleep(walk)ing Beauty
A prequel is quite a creative temptation. For a studio with an existing franchise, it offers the benefit of another entry without the stigma of being labeled a sequel, and it can inject energy into a franchise that is growing tired (see X-Men: First Class). For a storyteller with the clout and means to take on something he wasn’t able to do before, it gives him the chance to say, “Finally!” (see Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise). For a filmmaker with a certain creative desire, it can afford an opportunity to put her own creative spin on a character while becoming part of a character’s history (technically after that history has already occurred).
This last example is a dicey proposition because it usually involves a character, or the film that character is associated with, that has been beloved for decades. This worked well for 2006’s Casino Royale which, while closer to a reboot than a prequel, looks at a younger James Bond who is not the debonaire super-spy we grew up with. It worked poorly for 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, a straight prequel that looks at how a certain wizard of Oz got to be that wizard before Dorothy and Company followed the yellow brick road.
Hollywood is at again, this time in the form of a prequel about one of Disney’s all-time great baddies: Maleficent, from the 1959 animated classic, Sleeping Beauty. Only this time, the action is live, not drawn.
Maleficent opens by introducing two kingdoms – one ruled by humans and the other shared by faeries and other fantastical creatures, including the child faerie named Maleficent. One day, the young human Stefan finds his way to the faerie land where he meets Maleficent. The two become dear friends and on the faerie’s 16th birthday, Stefan gives her a true love’s kiss. As the years pass, though, Stefan visits less and less as his ambition grows to assume the throne in his land.
After a failed attempt to invade the faerie’s land leaves King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) near death at the hands of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), the monarch tells his closest men, including Stefan (Sharlto Copley), that whoever avenges him by killing Maleficent will marry his daughter and become the new king. Stefan, leveraging his past relationship with the faerie, betrays her. He allows her to live, but he convinces Henry that she is dead. When Henry passes, Stefan becomes king.
When the scorned and bitter Maleficent learns that Stefan has had a child – Aurora – she crashes the christening and, in an act of revenge against Stefan, casts a spell that on the child’s 16th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into an eternal sleep. The only thing that can break that curse is a true love’s kiss. In response, Stefan allows his daughter to be whisked into protective hiding by three kind faeries (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) until the day after her 16th birthday. But Maleficent keeps a secretive but watchful eye over the child, develops a fondness for her, and eventually engages in a relationship with her when she is 15 (and played by Elle Fanning). Everything comes to a head on Aurora’s 16th birthday.
Maleficent opens with promise. To learn that the evil title character actually began as a cheerful sprite in a joyful land took me by (pleasant) surprise. While I didn’t know what to expect, I certainly didn’t expect her fall to have begun so high. Add to that the notion that the future father of Sleeping Beauty is the man responsible for that descent’s beginning, and you have the makings for a fantastic character study.
Sure, the filmmakers have dazzling resumés. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton‘s includes the screenplays for 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and 1994’s The Lion King. And Robert Stromberg has earned two Best Art Direction Oscars (2009’s Avatar and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland) in his 25+ year career. But once the set-up is in place, which is just after Stefan’s betrayal of Maleficent, what follows is an arduous and empty exercise not in character study but in people-watching, and the only reason why the film moves forward at all is because you cannot stop time, although it sure feels like they try to do so in this film.
The very construct of the story dictates that there will be at least two stretches of time between significant events: between Stefan’s betrayal and the birth of Aurora, and between Maleficent’s curse and Aurora’s 16th birthday. This is like having a blank page and a typewriter: the possibilities are endless. These characters have never before been defined onscreen are are beholden to no canon that has come before them. Instead of seizing this opportunity, instead of delving into Maleficent’s psyche and perilous decline, instead of examining any potential fallout because Stefan lied the king about Maleficent’s death, Woolverton and Stromberg instead create random, meaningless moments along a timeline. While those moments do establish that the once-icy Maleficent is warming to the joyful and beautiful Aurora (whom she affectionately calls “Beastie”), there is nothing to suggest that the faerie’s thaw couldn’t have just as easily been triggered by a series of adorable puppy gifs.
No story means nothing to hold a viewer’s interest and, using a rule-of-thumb I’m taking a greater liking to with every screening, I started wondering (about halfway through?) how much time was left in the film.
Without a solid story to support them, the characters are left adrift. Jolie, as the centerpiece of the film, does the best that she can, but she is ultimately relegated to striking poses of various degrees of brooding, with short bursts of dialogue that really don’t offer her one of those “moments.” Make no mistake, Dean Semler‘s cinematography simply adores the actress, but there is little else for her to do except look good and pout.
If the name above the title is that limited, you know the supporting players are more so. Aurora and Diaval (Maleficent’s shapeshifting right-hand man, played by Sam Riley) are flat second fiddles, and Stefan is a terribly designed and executed character due to a combination of no discernible traits and a shaky performance by Copley. But the worst characters by far are the three faeries. They are supposed to be the comic relief, but they offer neither humor nor respite. They are poorly CGI’d in their wee bodies and when they morph to human-size, they look like grown women acting like faeries acting like idiots. (For this I lay NO blame at the feet of Staunton, Manville, or Temple.)
Regardless of pen or performance, though, the buck ultimately stops with the director, and Stromberg glaringly shows that this is his first time helming a picture. For me, his greatest sin is that he allows the presentation format to dictate shot selection instead of letting whatever narrative is there do so. A couple of the shots are breathtaking (even in the 2D presentation I saw), but on the whole he’s essentially filming establishing shots and set-pieces from the front car of a carnival ride. He also struggles – mightily – with action sequences, relying heavily on VFX, quick cuts, and mass chaos instead of any kind of choreography. That’s not to say he doesn’t have it in him, it’s just that he doesn’t have it here.
Maleficent could have been a Disney live-action film for the ages; it has some of the right pieces. But with a weak foundation and suspect direction, it’s just another dull kid-flick to slug through, with a story like a cursed spindle, ready to prick its viewers into a deep slumber.