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D: Robert Stromberg / 97m

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham, Hannah New

A revisionist version of the Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent begins long before the traditional tale begins, and tells of two neighbouring lands, one human, one fairy, that exist with animosity simmering between them.  As a young child, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) is curious about humans but doesn’t venture any further than the boundary of the fairy lands (known as the Moors).  One day a young boy, Stefan (Michael Higgins) is found stealing in the Moors.  Maleficent saves him from the forest guards and a friendship is born.  Stefan returns to the Moors from time to time and friendship blossoms into romance.  When Maleficent is sixteen, Stefan gives her a “true love’s” kiss, but he never returns after that day.

Years pass.  Now an adult, Maleficent (Jolie) is the de facto queen of the Moors.  When King Henry (Cranham) tries to invade the fairy lands she repels his army and the King is injured.  With no natural heir to succeed him, he offers the throne to whomever kills Maleficent.  Stefan (Copley) is a courtier but uses his relationship with Maleficent to get close to her.  Unable to kill her outright, instead he cuts off her wings; he brings them back to Henry and becomes King when Henry dies; he also marries Henry’s daughter, Leila (New).  Maleficent, meanwhile, saves a raven from being captured by a human and transforms him into a man who tells her his name is Diaval (Riley).  Diaval agrees to be Maleficent’s spy in the human lands, and brings news when Stefan and Leila have a daughter, Aurora.

Maleficent attends the christening and bestows a gift on the child, a curse that on her sixteenth birthday Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall asleep for the rest of eternity; the only thing that can lift the curse is a “true love’s” kiss.  Stefan orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom broken up and burned and sends Aurora away under the charge of three pixies, Knotgrass (Staunton), Flittle (Manville) and Thistlewit (Temple), to live in a cottage deep in the nearby woods; she is to live there until the day after her sixteenth birthday.

As she approaches that fateful date, Aurora (Fanning) becomes increasingly fascinated with the Moors.  Maleficent puts her under a spell and brings her into the Moors.  Aurora is enchanted by what she sees and she becomes determined to stay there (she has no idea of her background or history).  At the same time her relationship with Maleficent develops into a strong bond, and Maleficent softens in her attitude toward her.  On her way to tell the pixies of her decision, she meets Prince Philip (Thwaites) with whom there is an instant mutual attraction.  When she reaches the cottage, Knotgrass inadvertently mentions her father, whom Aurora has been told died long ago.  The pixies reveal the truth about her heritage and Aurora confronts Maleficent.  Distraught, Aurora returns to the castle on her sixteenth birthday, where Stefan is preparing for what he believes will be  Maleficent’s imminent arrival.  That night, Aurora escapes from her room but ends up in the basement where all the broken up and charred spinning wheels are.  As the curse decrees, Aurora pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into eternal sleep…

Maleficent - scene

With the look and feel of both Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) – and it’s no surprise, as director Stromberg was the production designer on both movies – Maleficent is a feast for the eyes and looks beautiful throughout.  The Moors has an air of whimsy about it and the various pastel shades employed to bring it to life are cleverly overlapped to create a ravishing whole.  Once Maleficent is betrayed, the colours are muted and the Moors is not quite as vividly rendered, but it’s still a wonderful place for a young girl to grow up in.

It’s a shame then that as much effort wasn’t put into the human kingdom, its stone walls and bland woodwork acting as a dreary counterpoint to the Moors.  It’s also a good reference point when discussing the characters.  Maleficent herself is a wonderful creation, given depth and pathos by Jolie, and graced with the sharpest cheekbones you’re ever likely to see on screen.  It’s a magnificent performance, and a reminder that Jolie, last seen in the less than wonderful The Tourist (2010), is an accomplished actress, but here she’s the sole focus in a movie that short changes its other characters, leaving the rest of the cast to fend for themselves while Jolie gets the lion’s share of the screen time and any character development.  Ultimately, this single-mindedness hurts the movie tremendously, and wastes the talents of Fanning, Copley, Staunton et al.  Copley, despite a minimal attempt to endow Stefan with a degree of guilt for his actions, is hamstrung by the lack of range his character is imbued with, and by the movie’s end he’s so close to providing a one-note performance as to make no difference (it doesn’t help that his accent wavers all over the place in his early scenes).

With Linda Woolverton’s script providing less meat than required, Maleficent suffers in other areas as well.  For such a handsomely mounted, cleverly revisionist tale, it’s also curiously flat throughout.  The early scenes – pre-adult Maleficent – seem in a hurry to get to the main bulk of the movie, and the remainder doesn’t excite or captivate in the way that it should.  Scene follows scene but not in any organic way; instead it’s as if the movie is more concerned with hitting each plot development in turn but not with how it gets there.  This leaves some scenes feeling redundant, often before the scene has ended.  And too much happens purely because the script needs it to: Stefan’s preparations for Maleficent’s return to the castle, for example, planned so far in advance of her actually needing to go there that it doesn’t make sense; and Maleficent’s wings, unmoving and apparently lifeless when Stefan removes them, but animated and responsive after more than sixteen years (and just when Maleficent needs them).

Story and plot problems notwithstanding, Maleficent lacks the zest and energy needed to fully bring it’s reworking of Sleeping Beauty (1959) to life.  There’s also the issue of whether or not Maleficent is really the villainous character she is in Disney’s animated version of the story.  Here, she’s clearly a character who’s been tragically wronged, and despite attempts to make her “evil”, they’re never convincing, and Jolie’s approach to the character highlights the theme of female empowerment that permeates the movie throughout.  This leaves Stefan as the movie’s one true villain, and far more “evil” than Maleficent could ever be, even with the maniacal chuckling that Jolie strives for during the christening.  (It’s a shame as it would definitely have made the movie more interesting, but with the emphasis on rehabilitating the character for a modern audience – as if we really needed it – a completely evil Maleficent was never on the cards.)

Stromberg is not a strong director, either, and his lack of experience contributes to the overall shortcomings of the movie.  The action sequences lack the excitement expected from them, and the editing by Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson often contributes to the sense that there’s a more structured, deliberate movie back in the cutting room (a longer version might be interesting to watch).  In the end, this is Jolie’s triumph, not anyone else’s, but by herself she’s not able to rescue the movie from the doldrums it repeatedly finds itself in.

Rating: 5/10 – not entirely the success its makers would have hoped for, but not entirely a dud either, just a maddeningly disappointing movie that never takes off (as Maleficent herself does); plagued by too many bad decisions affecting its presentation, Maleficent keeps the viewer at arm’s length for long periods, and only occasionally tries to bring them any closer.