***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C+
starring Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley
screenplay by Linda Woolverton
directed by Robert Stromberg
by Walter Chaw A gyno-centric reimagining of Disney's own Sleeping Beauty, visual-effects guy Robert Stromberg's directorial debut Maleficent (from a script by never-good Disney house-overwriter Linda Woolverton) takes all the ingredients for a horrible disaster and somehow wrestles a fitfully fascinating film from them. It hates men, that much is certain. Paints them as alternately servile and monstrous. Good men follow orders and are easily intimidated; bad men are sexually dangerous and violent. Good men know their place, led about on a tether and bullied into situations by women in groups or singly; and the rest, well...sufficed to say that Sharlto Copley, the most Ellis-from-Die-Hard human, is cast as chief BigBad, the good king Stefan. The film even goes so far as to suggest that romantic, heterosexual love is a sham, a dangerous one at that--something it tries to soften with a couple of doe-eyed exchanges during the epilogue, though I'm not buying it. In fact, had Maleficent truly committed to its themes of feminine empowerment and rage, had it linked them together hand-in-hand without entire agonizing stretches of Disney-fication, it could have entered into the same conversation as Tarantino's Kill Bills. Here's another film with a kick-ass female protagonist who finds strength in motherhood. Alas, for as often as it's great, it's limited by what its masters will allow.
Still, Maleficent opens with a solid thirty minutes of exhilarating creation mythology. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie, typecast), a tremendous thing all of Rick Baker cheekbones, "Spirit of Ecstasy" Rolls hood ornament, Joan Crawford, and a Maxfield Parrish calendar, leads an army of elemental beasts inspired by Stromberg's own work on Pan's Labyrinth. Zeitgeist watchers, take note: in tandem with Noah's dirt-encrusted Nephilim, it's already a good year for the earth rising in defense of itself. Winged Maleficent, pointedly designed as demonic and illicitly sexy (Christianity's twin bogeys), is defender of "the moors"--the sylvan wie, as it were, standing in tension against the civilization and order of Man. There's a Christian/heathen subtext here, but it's just one of many. Too, Maleficent is a reimagining of the character as one wronged by not Man, but an individual man. Sleeping Beauty's villain, she's very much the heroine of this piece: an almost-literal Leda, as it were, who literally takes on wings in a laden conclusion. Counting subtexts, the wings are symbols of loss, then empowerment; imprisonment and freedom; decrepitude (see her cane) and youth; experience and innocence.
Stefan wins Maleficent's heart as a child, then betrays her (spoiler alert) by cutting off her wings while she's drugged. It's loaded with gravity, not only because of Jolie's much-publicized double-mastectomy (making Maleficent's mourning of her loss physically uncomfortable to witness), but also for the idea that, having been drugged, she wakes to find her innocence stolen by a man she trusts and loves. It's a rape scene. The rest of the film plays out like a rape-revenge saga, ending in Maleficent's acceptance of a surrogate daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), and murder--don't call it self-defense--of her attacker. There's deep irony for me that revenge is so embedded in the Disney culture. Maleficent would've been a masterpiece had it dealt with its issues without comedic distraction and, moreover, without the requisite Disney murder of the villain. Maleficent, well-established within the film as capable of saving things from fatal drops, pointedly decides not to save Stefan. Her act of omission orphans the little girl she professes to love the most. By not giving Maleficent grace at the end, the movie betrays the character's growth--it suggests that the only way through trauma is an equivalent, opposing trauma. It's the old cure for amnesia; Jolie, and Maleficent, deserve better.
The film is weakest, in other words, when it's forced to follow Disney protocol. A trio of pixie nannies (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, and Juno Temple(!)) provide mealy domestic slapstick in an interminable middle section, while a milquetoast Prince Charming (Brenton Thwaites, fresh from a One Direction photo shoot) with the thankless task of being led around like a helium balloon balks a little (but goes ahead anyway) at the rapey implications of kissing a girl he barely knows, one who's also unconscious. Maleficent, compounding its misandry, isn't overly impressed with the sixteen-years-in-the-making machinations of Stefan and his team of iron-workers. The fruits of their labour? A net, I think. The one truly sympathetic male, Diaval (Sam Riley), is essentially a slave dismissed, silenced, ridden, and bonded. Though he doesn't mind, Maleficent should, but then it doesn't deal well with conflict. See its easy dispatching of parents, or the casual enslavement of sentient familiars and "justified" murder of its antagonists. I would have preferred a détente rather than an enactment of another vengeance scenario--an attempt to understand the toll suffered by both sides of the conflagration.
Maleficent is a reminder that Jolie has already been inspired in this role as the "Mrs." in Doug Liman's great Mr. and Mrs. Smith. She's a convincing villain, a convincing mother, a convincing mourner. She gives the movie unexpected depth and complexity, and she's game when the script disappoints with all that crap that's not about getting pricked, bleeding, and falling into a deep sleep upon turning the corner on sweet sixteen. Maleficent is two-thirds a great spectacle and potent cry of rage about the battleground eternal of gender politics that shockingly deals with rape and its emotional fallout in a series of seriously-arranged allegorical scenarios. And it's one-third a Disney movie that doesn't deal with anything in a mature way, choosing violence and contrivance and so desperate to put a daisy on everything. But what's good is really good. You can only hope it inspires the right conversation. Originally published: May 30, 2014.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Disney brings Maleficent to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that suggests a faithful reproduction of a film that often looks more like a discount Avatar than like its lush forebear, the animated Sleeping Beauty. The digitally-generated image is capable of rich, sulphuric greens but they've been reserved for the clouds of magic Maleficent conjures at the baby shower from Hell, with the movie instead settling on a parched palette that becomes all but monochromatic in night scenes. (The only thing ripely saturated throughout is Angelina Jolie's mouth.) Contrast and fine detail are diffuse by design, rarely but occasionally impressive; this is another bashful colour grade, in tune with trend but not the subject matter. I really wish the filmmakers had let the picture's freak flag fly, specifically by taking more cues from the medieval art-inspired backdrops Eyvind Earle concocted for Sleeping Beauty. An attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track highlights a sprightly, booming soundtrack mixed with intelligence. I liked, for instance, how the percussive stamping of shields when Maleficent is cornered in the castle is at once rhythmic and asynchronous, as some of Stefan's guards come in a beat too early or late. Sharlto Copley's fluctuating accent is lamentably clear.
A malnourished serving of HD extras begins, strangely, with a featurette focusing on a supporting character. "Aurora: Becoming a Beauty" (5 mins.) finds Elle Fanning talking about the role of Sleeping Beauty in an endearingly innocent way, saying she studied her cartoon counterpart for mannerisms she might be able to replicate in homage and wistfully recalling the day they shot the mud-fight, which looks depressing in B-roll as Fanning chucks dirt at nothing in front of a blue curtain. In "From Fairy Tale to Feature Film" (8 mins.), terrible screenwriter Linda Woolverton gives herself an "attagirl" for allegedly solving the fundamental problem of adapting Sleeping Beauty from the villain's point of view, and a costumed Angelina Jolie scares the baby playing Aurora in funny-sad outtakes. Clips from Sleeping Beauty for comparison's sake do Maleficent no favours. "Building an Epic Battle" (6 mins.) spotlights the stunt team in a piece that significantly oversells the movie's blink-and-miss Braveheart bit, however nobly. "Classic Couture" (2 mins.) features voiceover from millinery designer Justin Smith over 360º views of Maleficent's headgear, while "Maleficent Revealed" (5 mins.) is a before-and-after effects reel given rousing backing by James Newton Howard's score. Lastly, a sampling of five deleted scenes (7 mins. in total) begins with a nice moment of Stefan trying on the crown in secret that's immediately undone by Woolverton's storytelling insecurities; nothing else is that memorable except for some unfinished VFX on the pixies. Optional trailers for the live-action Cinderella (one of those teasers without any footage) and the upcoming Diamond Edition of 101 Dalmatians cue up on startup of the disc. We reviewed the combo pack, which includes DVD and downloadable copies of the film. A separate Blu-ray 3D version is also available.