Overhyped Maleficent disappoints on nearly all fronts

Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) in Maleficent

Angelina Jolie in Maleficent

There’s such a thing as too much PR. I don’t know about you, but when I can’t turn around without an ad for a particular product smacking me in the eyeballs, I tend to dig in my consumerist heels and not want to buy that whatever-it-is. I also start to wonder where all the money that went toward that bloated advertising budget isn’t going instead. In the case of this year’s most overhyped movie by far, Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, what the budget didn’t get spent on was topnotch filmcraft.

Conceived as the sympathetic backstory of the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty – the one who casts the sleeping spell on the infant Princess Aurora (or Briar Rose, in some versions) in a fit of pique over not making the A-list of christening invitees – the movie was apparently trying to hitch a ride on the coattails of such pioneers of the increasingly popular villain’s-eye-view genre as John Gardner’s Grendel, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. What resulted instead comes across as a vanity project for Angelina Jolie, who is credited as co-producer as well as star.

I’ve never been overly impressed with Jolie’s acting chops, and – with the exception of one intense scene of grief after her human boyfriend, ambitious to win the old king’s favor, has drugged Maleficent and cut off her wings – this movie doesn’t demand much of her limited abilities, even though she’s center-screen in probably three-quarters of its running time. Most of her lines consist of “Hm.” Not “Hmmmmm” or “Hmmm” or even “Hmm” – just “Hm.”

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The camera does, however, spend an inordinate amount of time lingering on her prosthetically enhanced cheekbones and CGI-rendered glowing green eyes. The focus on her otherworldly beauty sabotages the film, in a way, rubbing the audience’s collective nose in the realization that Angelina Jolie rules the tabloid headlines more because she was born with good bone structure than because she can act worth a damn.

It doesn’t help at all that the writing is horrible: She gets off relatively easy, with “Hm” being one of the few lines in Linda Woolverton’s screenplay that isn’t laughably stilted pseudo-Medievalese. Sharlto Copley as Stefan, Maleficent’s young lover-turned-king-by-treachery, fares far worse, with an execrable on-again, off-again Scottish burr further mangling his wretched delivery of lines that maybe no one could have delivered convincingly.

The story of the wronged fairy’s revenge on King Stefan via the 16-year curse on his innocent daughter (Elle Fanning) meanders all over the place, and the editing along with it. The shots in the big action scenes seem assembled randomly, so that it’s hard to follow who’s where, what’s happening and why. Entlike tree-warriors and a dive-bombing, spell-slinging angry fairy notwithstanding, I haven’t witnessed a less dynamic Middle Ages battle sequence in recent memory than the old king (Kenneth Cranham)’s assault on the Moors, the magical neighboring realm that Maleficent rules.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Maleficent fails spectacularly, even as spectacle. Given today’s advanced state of CGI technology, there’s just no excuse anymore for the blurry, muddy look of the scenery and the blobby creatures who inhabit the Moors. They make it look like cinema magic hasn’t evolved at all since Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. The geography of the Moors is very obviously meant to evoke the landscapes of Pandora in Avatar (on which Stromberg was a production designer), but it’s as if we’re looking at them through a scrim – again sabotaging the movie by reminding us how great it could have looked, if only so much of the production budget hadn’t been diverted to plaster Jolie’s horned head on every page of the Internet.

My 18-year-old moviegoing companion and I found some small diversion in ticking off the onscreen tropes clearly lifted from other fantasy-genre movies, muttering “Dumbledore!” when a character falls from a tower à la Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and wondering whether the sycophants lined up at the old king’s deathbed were named Primus, Secundus, Tertius et al like the sons of the dying king of Stormhold in Stardust. Maleficent wanders through ruins that look exactly like the ruins of Dol Guldur infiltrated by Gandalf in the first two Hobbit movies. If you saw Frozen, you’ll see the big plot twist coming a mile off; it’s replicated almost verbatim here. And so on.

But playing spot-the-meme can’t carry a moviegoing experience all by itself. It’s a pity that Maleficent drops the ball on so many levels, because classic fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty possess a wealth of mythic resonance and multilayered psychological and symbolic meaning that could fuel any number of potentially very good, perhaps even iconic films. Maleficent dredges up some terrifying psychosexual archetypes, all right; but it flings them around higgledy-piggledy instead of trying to build a coherent framework of threat and dread. The forcible excision of the unconscious young fairy’s wings is readily construed as a metaphor for date rape; but if it’s really bad when Stefan does it to Maleficent, why is it okay when the three pixies charged with Aurora’s upbringing (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) urge a passing prince (Brenton Thwaites) to kiss the sleeping princess to break the curse? The original impulse behind the making of Maleficent may have been to put a feminist spin on the villainess character, but the end result certainly has nothing to do with the concept of female “agency,” to use the trending term.

The best reason to go see Maleficent, if not simply to appease some child in your life, is the character of Diaval: a raven transformed into a manservant by the fairy to do her bidding. Though bound to her, he’s not shy about giving Maleficent a piece of his mind when he thinks that she’s making bad choices, and – with the possible exception of a scene-stealing, right-on-cue baby – Sam Riley delivers the movie’s best performance by far in the shapeshifter role.

Fanning has some good moments; a mudfight that she instigates in a swamp is one of the few scenes in the film whose fairytale charm doesn’t seem forced. But the princess is so unrelentingly perky that I couldn’t blame Maleficent for wanting to whap her upside the head at times. And the prince, who’s being hauled around in a magically inert state by the sorceress in most of his scenes, is so passive and dull that both my teenage companion and I found ourselves wishing desperately that Aurora would get paired off with the much more interesting Diaval at the end instead. No such luck.

Long story short: If you’re looking for movie magic, you’ll need to look elsewhere than Maleficent. It’s all just a hot mess, limply and shabbily rendered. I’d sooner take a 100-year nap than sit through this one again.

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