Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA/United Kingdom, 2014. Roth Films, Walt Disney Pictures. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on the motion picture Sleeping Beauty, Story by Erdman Penner, Screenplay by Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, Milt Banta, based on the story Little Briar Rose by Jacob Grimm, and Wilhelm Grimm, and the story La Belle Au Bois Dormant by Charles Perrault. Cinematography by Dean Semler. Produced by Joe Roth. Music by James Newton Howard. Production Design by Dylan Cole, Gary Freeman. Costume Design by Anna B. Sheppard. Film Editing by Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson. Academy Awards 2014. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2014.
In an effort to present young female viewers with more than the unimaginative binary feminine personality around which fairy tales are built, usually in the form of the innocent maiden versus the evil witch, films inspired by the book and Broadway musical of Wicked have become a new trend, giving us alternative adventures from the point of view of the villainess and forcing us to question whether or not she is evil or just trying to make her way in a world that treats her wrong. In Oz: The Great And Powerful, the Wicked Witch of the West is the outcome of a good woman being spurned by a man she loves, and now in Maleficent, the title character, best known for trying to ruin Sleeping Beauty‘s chances of being a bubble-headed housewife to a bland prince, turns vengeful after the man she loves does her wrong. At least Snow White And The Huntsman‘s wicked stepmother turned out that way because of an overbearing mother who just wanted her to be pretty forever, but there’s no denying that the feminism these films aspire to is disingenuous at the very least, as concerned with shallow representations of small-minded girls in a world belonging to big and important boys as their predecessors were. That said, this is not fully what makes Maleficent something of a chore to sit through, since when you combine this dull flavor of false rebelliousness with heavyhanded direction, by a filmmaker who thinks he is reimagining Braveheart, and a shockingly awkward performance in the lead by what should have been a perfectly cast Angelina Jolie, you have what amounts to a harmless and watchable but ultimately unimportant mess. Maleficent, we discover, is not human at all but the queen of the fairies, residing as she does in a gorgeous neon Avatar kingdom right next to the world of shaggy, dirty men, who can’t stand that this treasure trove of nature is right next to them and they can’t plunder it for its riches. The tension between nations and species reaches an apex when Maleficent falls in love with poor, young Sharlto Copley but, in his ambition to become king of the land (Americans always imagine that their cultural tolerance for upward mobility extends far back enough to European fairy tales) he screws her over, takes her wings (very violently, both as an action on screen and as a cheesy metaphor) and then abandons her. Consumed by rage, she makes like the best cinema divas, putting on a fabulous black dress and fire-engine red lipstick and, following his marriage to a dull teenager after his coronation, attends the birth of the King’s first child and puts a curse on her. We all know the story from here: in sixteen years, the baby born to this unfaithful man will prick her finger on a spinning wheel, as if anyone even knows what that is anymore, so the King destroys all the spinning wheels in the land (and orders clothes from American Apparel?) and ships the young lady off to be raised by three fairies who assume human form. I really wanted to be happy that great actresses like Lesley Manville and Imelda Staunton were getting their big payday in a movie like this, but after a few seconds of their contrived bickering with third fairy Juno Temple, and the goofy antics of them constantly putting the child in danger of death, I found myself wishing they would return to their Mike Leigh mode and just unleash their working-class frustration on the perpetually happy baby. The years pass and as the child grows, Maleficent is always somewhere nearby, usually rescuing Aurora, who grows up to be Elle Fanning (whose mother is apparently Mama Rose, screaming at her from off screen to SMILE, baby!), from whatever dangers she gets into that her guardians can’t be bothered to notice. Then something unique happens: the ice melts around Maleficent’s heart and she comes to love the child, regretting she ever put a curse on her and hoping to take it away, and realizing that what the guy did to her is no reason to lose her sense of herself. That’s the lovely part of the story, but then we have to go back to the castle where there is a loud and messy showdown and a denouement that takes the form of all Disney villainy since time immemorial; one must be careful not to give too much away, but it’s interesting that in trying to give what was traditionally a cardboard female villain (who, by the way, truly was fabulous) some moral shading is mainly justified by taking all humanity away from her male counterpart, who is tossed aside despite the fact that he is actually the young ingenue’s father and capable of some redemption himself. Then there is the most insulting betrayal, which to avoid spoiling will not be divulged, but let’s just say that the mega money shot of the original animated classic is not delivered to adequate satisfaction. It must be said that the moments when Jolie gets to prance around like a mouthy drag queen truly are fun, she arches an eyebrow above her awkwardly sculpted fake cheeks with ravishing joy, issuing backhanded compliments with as much pith as her tinny voice can muster. The disappointment is that there is not much for her to fire, since Linda Woolverton’s dull screenplay barely has enough wit to fit one scene’s worth of conversation. What could have been the opportunity to tell us about this woman and challenge us to like her in spite of her faults is actually just a movie in which Maleficent is turned into Sleeping Beauty and Sleeping Beauty is turned into one of Cinderella’s mice. Watch it if you want to be entertained by something meaningless, but if you want your daughters to be inspired show them Fly Away Home instead.