Monday, December 29, 2014

Angelina Jolie and a Ballsy Theme Help "Maleficent" Play Up

Angelina Jolie acts opposite her daughter Vivienne in Maleficent.
It would be easy to pre-judge Maleficent as just another piece of junk on the increasingly growing list of live-action cash-ins adapted from animated classics. I did that myself when the film came out, but I recently caught up with it on DVD, and while I can't say I think Maleficent entirely works, I was pleasantly surprised by how ballsy an adaptation it turned out to be.

Growing up, I always thought Sleeping Beauty, its villain especially, was dumb. The idea of the villain cursing a princess to an impending deep sleep because she was mad she didn't get invited to the girls christening just seemed lame. The creators of Maleficent seem to have realized this, as they've altered the story to make the title character's decision to curse an infant far more understandable.

Here, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is originally a kind fairy whose actions are motivated by revenge against the girl's father Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a former love interest who, in his power-hungry quest to ascend to the throne, drugs her and cuts off her wings to garner favor with a dying king looking to name an heir. When Princess Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt as a child, Elle Fanning as a teen) is left in the hands of three bumbling fairies, Maleficent begins to covertly care for the girl as a sort of fairy godmother, coming to regret her curse and yet seemingly powerless to stop it.

Despite this being a Disney film, the wing-cutting plays like a metaphor for rape, a fact that Jolie herself commented on in a BBC interview, saying it was a story about "how the abused then have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people."

That's some heavy stuff for a kids' movie, and while I certainly question if it’s appropriate, that aspect of the film works pretty well due to the conviction of Jolie's performance. Although this is clearly a money gig for her, Jolie brings her A-game and single-handedly elevates the movie. The woman is a phenomenal actress, and she’s more than capable of bringing nuance on cue, but there’s something about the playful wit she has on screen that registers especially well here.

Sticking with positive attributes, I did enjoy the twist the film puts on the traditional fairy tale ending, even if it was lifted straight out of Frozen. There’s also brevity to the film that definitely bodes well – Maleficent is the rare film in this genre that doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, that is sort of a double-edged sword – there’s a whole lot of telling and not much showing.

All that being said, I have one big issue with the film, and that is how severely it sucks the magic right out of this classic fairy tale. A lot of that starts with character. While Maleficent is fleshed out nicely and Aurora fairs ok (even if she’s basically a pleasant plot device), almost every other character suffers in this translation. This interpretation of Stefan is a disaster, and as much as I’ve liked him in other things, Copley doesn’t deliver here. I’m not sure how much of that is his fault – there’s no dimension to the role – but he’s far too important to the story to feel so blah.

Meanwhile, the concept of giving Maleficent’s raven sidekick occasional human form is interesting but ultimately very awkwardly handled. And then there’s the fairies – the totally tone deaf fairies. These three were a treasured part of the the Disney animated classic, but here they are an annoying afterthought.

Outside of some flourishes by Jolie, there’s just no fun to any of this, and fairy tales, especially ones marketed to kids the way this film has been, should be fun. There's still a lot to like here thematically, but Maleficent is not as fleshed out as it needs to be, and there's ultimately a sense of ambition overreaching grasp. B-