Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning
Genre: Fantasy/ Adventure
In a magical land that borders the human kingdom lives a kind hearted fairy by the name of Maleficent (Jolie), who grows to be the protector of the land from the attempted invasion of the power obsessed human king. However after a betrayal from Stefan (Copley), a human who was once a peasant boy but then harbours ambitions to become the next king, leaves Maleficent’s heart broken, she becomes a hateful and vengeful figure and when learning of the birth of the king’s daughter, curses the newborn child. However as the child (Fanning) grows up with Maleficent secretly watching over her, she may well hold the key to reminding Maleficent that love does still exist in this world.
So it is yet another summer of blockbusters of which one of those is an expensive re-imaging of a famous fairy tale story or figure. For 2014 Disney have once again perused their back catalogue of villains to give an expensive back story for us to rethink their supposedly solely evil nature, a trend that seems to have been firmly set by the huge global success of the stage play Wicked, (of which a film is apparently in the pipeline). Thankfully, those behind Maleficent know to work to its strengths and not make it some serious and brooding wannabe epic like Snow White and the Huntsman (which I liked, but it could have been better) and go more for an expensive on screen pantomime like Jack the Giant Slayer. Everything is very over the top; the visuals and the performances especially, but it does work, to create an extremely enjoyable romp of a film.
With a budget of $180 million Disney have certainly invested a lot in this project, but judging by box office takings so far, they look to be getting a return on their investment. After the huge financial success of Frozen Disney truly are a box office powerhouse again, though I am sceptical that the upcoming Cinderella film will be quite such an epic spectacle. Of course with a huge budget like this then anyone would be forgiven for expecting Maleficent to have stunning visuals, but it most certainly does. Robert Stromberg and his set designers and CGI artists have indeedcreated an immersive and magical world on screen (though I cannot speak of whether the 3D version of the film improved this even more). The atmosphere of the film is also enhanced by James Newton Howard’s magical score; in my view one of the best film scores of the year so far and though he may not get the mentions that some other composers do, when he delivers, Newton Howard is up there with the best of them.
However with all the abundance of CGI everywhere, for Maleficent to work it still needs heart and substance, and in the titular role Angelina Jolie certainly provides this. In her first on screen role for a few years, she reminds just how much of a charismatic screen presence she can be. Delivering every line with genuine passion, emphasis and relish in equal measure, she is obviously enjoying herself, and gives it her all from start to finish. Jolie most certainly cranks up the theatrics to the maximum, but it works perfectly for the film, but she also has the emotional range to flawlessly depict and justify Maleficent’s character arc and the motivations behind her actions.
Though she is the title of the film and has every right to do so, Jolie’s scene stealing and the screenplays primary focus on her character does leave most of the other characters as one dimensional caricatures and plot devices, which is not helped by the lacklustre performances that just cannot match the quality of Jolie’s. Though of course we already know all about her character, Elle fanning overacts when trying to capture Aurora’s natural eternal optimism and seems out of her depth. It is solely because of the strength of Jolie’s performance that we feel compassion for her. As the conniving Stefan, Sharlto Copley conforms to a long tradition of characters in fantasy films these days having to be Scottish or Irish and though his character is just a caricature, his performance is just as poor as his character is badly written. Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple do solid jobs as the incompetent fairies (or pixies, or whatever they are) but again get very little screen time. However as Diaval, Maleficent’s human/ crow servant, Sam Riley gives heart and genuine internal conflict giving at least one other decent character within the narrative.
Though there are attempts to retell this famous tale, any slight ‘twists’ can be predicted way before they happen. There is never a real sense of peril or indeed as much human conflict as perhaps there should be, meaning that maybe Maleficent is enjoyable but never truly gripping. It is actually quite a forgettable film and is ultimately a fairytale, and perhaps does not quite contain the substance that screenwriter Linda Woolverton thinks it does.
At 97 minutes it is not only refreshing to see a film of this kind to not hang around for too long, making the pace of Maleficent very rapid and not giving us a chance to realise the film is more style than substance, though of course elevated by Jolie’s note perfect performance and that fact that the style is certainly impressive and immersive. It is also worth pointing out that despite being a PG, there are some quite dark and violent scenes that may be unsuitable for younger viewers. It seems like with Jack the Giant Slayer, it is the general consensus that films such as this and Maleficent have to include some epic big scale CGI heavy battle scenes to tick off a box on some ‘fantasy film check list’, but if that is the case then make it a 12A and add a little more violence with an added sense of genuine peril.
Though not containing the substance it perhaps thinks it does, having a tendency of resorting to cheap caricatures to drive the narrative and develop its protagonist’s story, Maleficent contains an incredible and note perfect leading performance from Jolie and is an enjoyable and visually stunning fairytale romp.