VOD film review: Maleficent
Simon Kinnear | On 19, Sep 2014
Director: Robert Stromberg
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley
Watch Maleficent online in the UK: Disney+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Hollywood has spent decades schooling us about fairy tales; now, it’s revision time. Maleficent is the latest example of the fad to deconstruct the familiar iconography of famous stories and, as the script puts it, “tell an old tale anew”. While other studios have cottoned on to the fact that the original tales are in the public domain and thus fair game (hence 2012 becoming off to work they go for rival projects Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsmen), Disney is busiest pulling off the wings of its own legacy.
Maleficent, then, is Sleeping Beauty redux, aka Any Witch Way You Can. Jolie takes on the title role – the iconic villainess of the 1959 animated classic – to (re)tell her origin story. The star has gone on record to say that Maleficent was her favourite Disney character growing up, because of how spiteful she is. Yet the trouble with such revisionist takes is that they’re on a hiding to nothing because they are structurally impelled to smooth off the character’s rougher edges.
It’s one thing playing with the outlines of the fairytale form, as Enchanted, How To Train Your Dragon and Frozen have proven, but when it’s this specific, the result is a fatally compromised affair that sucks all of the fun out of being able to boo-hiss at the baddie. So, having established a reasonably robust backstory for why Maleficent goes rogue (involving greed, betrayal and amateur surgery), the title character has a change of heart and starts feeling sorry for the child she’s saddled with a sleeping curse. Cue interminably kitsch scenes of victim/villain bonding which are only marginally less awkward than the experience of sitting through them. And a key plot twist would be far more effective had it not already just appeared in another recent Disney film – honestly, does nobody compare notes?
At least it looks good, though – right? Sadly, not. This is the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, a man whose career typifies everything currently wrong with mainstream filmmaking. Once a gifted visual FX artist, he graduated to art direction on Avatar, Alice In Wonderland and Oz the Great And powerful (winning Oscars for the first two). You can see why he’s been promoted to run the ship here, but it means that his over-styled sensibilities are allowed to run amok.
‘Art direction’ in this context means plenty of pastel-coloured fantasy backdrops composited from old pro. rock album covers, with actors carelessly green-screened into the foreground alongside CG creatures. Case in point: Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple, playing the three fairy godmothers, have their faces squashed into nightmarish, uncanny facsimiles. Meanwhile, Copley (the de facto villain) is literally consigned to the shadows, because the dark walls of his castle are no place for Stromberg to put up his primary-coloured bunting.
There are two saving graces. As Sleeping Beauty herself, Fanning has such an unmistakable, infectious rapport with the camera that, as soon as she’s put to sleep, the film does all it can to wake her up quickly again. The other is Jolie, who has at least remembered what Maleficent once was and remains formidably flinty even when all around her is turning to sentimental mush. Even so, the overriding effect of the film – especially when it’s restaging the big scenes from the 1959 ‘toon – is to hope that Disney has a change of heart before it takes this revisionist lark too far and releases its heart-warming tale of a misunderstood deer hunter, Breaking Bambi.
Maleficent is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.
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Photo: © Disney