I’ve often mentioned how my high expectations have backfired on me–when I film I expected to wow me simply didn’t. On the other hand, low expectations have led me to appreciate some films far more than I might have otherwise–Madagascar 3, American Hustle (compared at least to my expectations), and now Maleficent. The reviews have been fairly weak–split down the middle, to be exact–and the “official” consensus is that Angelina Jolie’s performance is excellent, but the film is a poor context for it. I disagree. Yes, they were right about Jolie, but the film is far more accomplished than that; it’s a commendably lean, well-directed, and thoroughly engaging little fantasy. It has its faults, but I enjoyed it a great deal–it even got me to like a Lana Del Rey song, and that is no small feat.
The story is, of course, quite simple, even when the reinterpretation is factored in.
Two realms exist side-by-side: a human kingdom, and a fairy realm known as the Moors. The human kingdom is distrustful of the Moors and wants to conquer it. Young Maleficent (Ella Purnell) encounters a boy thief, Stefan (Michael Higgins). Maleficent is sympathetic to his plight–he’s an orphan who lives in a barn–and they become close, seemingly falling in love. But Stefan is occupied by his ambitions to kingship, and they ultimately become estranged. Years pass, and the now-grown Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) leads the Moors’ citizens into battle against the kingdom’s forces, led by the aged King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). The fairy forces easily outfight the humans, and Henry vows to reward anyone who kills Maleficent. Stefan (Sharlto Copley), now a servant to king, goes to Maleficent and warns her. He secretly drugs her to sleep, intending to kill her, but unable to do so, instead cuts off her wings and presents them to Henry, who makes Stefan his heir. Henry soon dies and Stefan assumes the throne.
The devastated Maleficent assumes absolute control of the Moors, and acquires a henchman, a crow whom she sometimes turns into a human, named Diaval (Sam Riley). She has Diaval spy on the kingdom for her, and soon learns that Stefan and his queen (Hannah New) have just had a daughter. Three pixies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville) arrive to present gifts to the child, but before they can bestow all of them Maleficent arrives, and despite Stefan’s protestations, places a curse upon the girl that, “before the sun sets on her 16th birthday”, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into “a sleep like death”, from which she can be awakened only by “true love’s kiss”–bitterly echoing what Stefan told her years earlier.
Aurora grows up, with Maleficent keeping a watchful eye on her. Now an adolescent, Aurora (Elle Fanning) wanders into the Moors one evening, and encounters Maleficent face to face, dubbing her her “fairy godmother”. Maleficent is taken aback by this, but she and Aurora soon become friends to the point where she attempts to undo the curse, but realizes that the curse’s clause that it may be undone by “no power on Earth” applies to her as well. Stefan, meanwhile, has descended into paranoia, planning endlessly for battle against Maleficent and the Moors. Maleficent suggests that Aurora come to live in the Moors with her. Aurora eagerly accepts, but a chance encounter with the young Prince Philip (Brendon Thwaites) complicates issues–as does the revelation she receives when she tells the pixies of her intention to leave.
Sent to Stefan’s castle on the day of her 16th birthday (rather than the day after, as the fairies had been told), Stefan immediately orders her locked up in her room while he prepares to battle with Maleficent, who is herself rushing to prevent Aurora from falling victim to the curse. They both fail, as a mysterious force leads Aurora to the basement and she pricks her finger, falling asleep. Philip, who has come to Stefan’s palace as an emissary from his father, is convinced by the pixies to kiss Aurora, but his kiss has no effect. Maleficent, bemoaning her actions and asking Aurora to forgive her, kisses her–and Aurora awakens.
But Maleficent and Diaval must battle Stefan and his men before matters can be resolved, and Maleficent gains the upper hand when her wings (kept as a trophy by Stefan) are restored to her, with Aurora’s help. Ultimately, Stefan is killed as he attempts to kill Maleficent, Aurora is crowned queen of both the human kingdom and the Moors, and she, Philip, Maleficent, and everyone else live happily ever after.
As involved as that synopsis was, the film itself is remarkably lean and brisk–at 97 minutes, including credits, it’s comparatively short for a modern fantasy film (Snow White and the Huntsman is by comparison positively bloated), and this briskness is one of its subtlest yet most profound virtues. Rather than feeling truncated, Maleficent feels sleek and efficient, and feels genuinely like a fable, with enough characterization to keep it engaging but not so much that it bogs down (it also avoids Hollywood psychoanalysis, for which I am grateful).
Linda Woolverton’s screenplay is crisply written, eschewing extraneous detail for the most part and focusing its energies on developing the Maleficent-Aurora dynamic, which works quite well, ultimately, especially in its subversion of the “true love’s kiss”/”act of true love” trope, outdoing Frozen, which hampered itself with a bungled third-act villain-reveal–no such rug-pulling occurs here. It’s a solid script, one that seems to have been given little if any credit. It is also responsible for the film’s most glaring weakness, but–I’ll get to that in a moment.
Director Robert Stromberg is a first-timer, having previously won Oscars for his production design on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. He shows a surprisingly deft hand here, making a film that moves briskly and looks very good indeed. The film seems to be making money, so I hope he gets the chance to direct again. If this film is any indication, he’s quite capable.
Kudos is also due to Dean Semler’s cinematography, the production design by Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman, and Anna B. Sheppard’s costume design. James Newton Howard’s score is fine, but not especially memorable. The special effects are something of a mixed bag, though, with the CGI, especially early on, appearing quite fake and distracting. Matters improve as the film progresses (the finale looks just fine), but still, one wishes some practical effects could’ve been included.
While even the weak reviews praised Jolie’s performance, I wouldn’t call it an unqualified tour de force; she falters in one scene, the scene where Maleficent awakens to discover Stefan has betrayed her and her wings have been stolen. Parallels with sexual assault may well have been intended–this article from The Week expounds on that interpretation–but Jolie’s performance comes off as stilted and affected–it comes off as acting. Maybe that was the intent, to evoke a kind of psychological dissociation, but whatever the case, it didn’t quite work.
That aside, though, Jolie relishes the role, but never goes too far with the campy aspects of it to allow one to forget how poignant the story is at its core. Her sly ruthlessness is great fun to watch (a scene where she attempts to dissuade the affection of toddler Aurora is particularly amusing), but her love for Aurora is equally affecting, and gives the film just the right balance between stylization and humanity.
Though Aurora is a fairly simple character, Fanning makes her wide-eyed wonderment quite believable. It’s far from her most challenging role, but Fanning makes more of an impact than the script would have ever suggested (even if she is saddled with one of those awful scenes where she learns Maleficent’s true nature and repudiates her, refusing to hear any explanation). Copley is quite unsettling as the driven Stefan, never softening him for the sake of sympathy (the script gives him no real redeeming qualities–and that’s fine with me), effectively portraying his descent into madness and his refusal to recognize or accept his responsibility for his own miseries.
The pixies, however, are just awful. Talented though Staunton, Temple, and Manville are, they can’t overcome how badly written and directed they are. Their ineptitude (they try to feed a newborn carrots. What the fuck?) is bad enough, but they’re intended as comic relief (red flag), and they’re not even remotely funny. They quarrel, sometimes bringing magic into these quarrels, but the timing is so off, and the material is so poor, that they simply dampen the film any time they’re on screen. At one point I assumed the film had simply forgotten about them, but my hopes were soon dashed. The CGI used for their pixie forms (as opposed to their full-size human form, which they use for most of the film) is also quite poor, and they’re quite unintentionally creepy.
Riley, however, is quite fun as the put-upon Diaval, and Thwaites is likable enough, given his minimal screen-time.
I must mention Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Once Upon a Dream” which plays over the end credits. I’ve long had mixed feelings at best about Del Rey–her songs are sometimes quite good, but I really don’t like her singing style, and her pretensions (her “National Anthem” video is stunningly bad) are off-putting. Here, however, her droning, woozy style perfectly complements the song–a beautiful one to begin with–and helps add to the lyrics a certain double meaning: not only does it refer to the love to come between Aurora and Philip, but also to the love that once existed between Maleficent and Stefan. Especially in context, it’s a deeply moving moment.
Maleficent may not belong in the top rank of fantasy films, but it’s definitely underrated (it’ll make my Underrated list this year), with its efficient storytelling and visual splendor overlooked, while it seems fated to be dismissed as a weak showcase for a star performance. It deserves more than that, and even if my low expectations led me to appreciate more than I did otherwise, I won’t deny that I genuinely enjoyed it, and though my memories of Sleeping Beauty are very dim, I gather I would regard this as an improvement. I recommend it.