Perhaps fitting for this film’s ominous, imposing, pointedly direct title, Maleficent’s best element is put right up in your face unadorned, and it’s Maleficent herself. Specifically, it’s Angelina Jolie. The scripting provides a nice groundwork of mythic broadness and nuanced character, and the figure’s visuality lends her an imposing and dominant yet frail and brittle figure, with costuming that approximates what small amount of expressionist grandeur a gargantuan summer blockbuster in 2014 with the Disney name could possibly hold on to. But this is a movie star piece through an through, and this film’s Maleficent is Jolie. It’s rare indeed that I play ball for an actor as the most important feature of a film, but then few actors have the raw, lascivious, deliciously commanding screen presence of Angelina Jolie. In addition, the film privileges her in shots, clearly reflecting director Robert Stromberg’s understanding that she is the center of the film, and his desire to show her off. So, that fact noted, it seems not only acceptable, but necessary to center Jolie in any consideration of Maleficent’s failure or success.
With no hyperbole, Angelina Jolie might be the only true female movie star we still have, one of the few proudly, almost psychotically, surface-level actors who play with the camera and beckon it toward them with an alluring aura(heaven help me when her and George Clooney, our last male movie star, make a movie together). Her roles, as with Clooney, never feel calculated – she chooses them, good film or bad, because the role fits her, and because it gives her time to shine and let her hair down. There is never a feeling that she is not completely beside herself with joy for every waking minute of screen-time. I won’t go to bat for her as an actor of great human insight – a noted flaw which drives critics away in droves – but she doesn’t want to be this actor. She doesn’t inhabit characters, as the good intellectuals among us beg actors to do. She, instead, feeds on them like a vampire, drawing energy from them for her own persona. When we’re watching her, she’s Angelina Jolie, not just Maleficent, and unlike most films, that is entirely to the film’s benefit here. She commands the role, demands from it, and plays with it, transfixing the screen. It’s a genuine shame she doesn’t appear in many films anymore – she was the best thing in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the best thing in Beowulf, the best thing in Wanted, and in what may be her best role in ages, she’s the best thing here.
Of course, she’s not the only thing here. For starters, the film is very much invested in its modern-mythic post-Alice in Wonderland fantastical imagery, and if things vary on this front, the proudly surface-level nature of the film is something to behold in this day and age of hiding wonder under the covers of realism. The film is archly mythic, and wisely avoids the trap of nuancing the story with too much complexity. It’s not so much an attempt to expose how the Maleficent of the original story was actually misunderstood as it is a complete reworking of the fiction into a new myth of its own.
Here, a young fairy with remarkable wings, Maleficent, falls in love with a human boy, Stefan (who will grow up to be played by Sharlto Copley). Maleficent, of great power and special-effects-inducing rage, grows into a protector of the Moors near the Kingdom Stefan hails from, and when the King comes a-knocking, Maleficent lays waste to their forces and lays waste to the King in his pitiless attempt to take over a natural world he has no right to. On his dying bed, he proclaims that whoever kills Maleficent shall be his successor. Naturally, Stefan gets an idea, but when the time comes, he can not fulfill his desire, and he instead cuts off Maleficent’s wings as proof of his success. He becomes King, has a daughter named Aurora, and Maleficent becomes mighty mad indeed.
Although Maleficent shares scenes with Sleeping Beauty, its narrative is fundamentally different at the level of core event and carries a darker, more Shakespearean tone. If it overlaps, it also deepens the back-story and significantly changes the ending. Yet there’s no misguided attempt at “providing the real story”. Instead, this is an open-faced work of fiction, beginning with a narrator (an elderly Aurora) telling her perspective on the story as though it were a children’s fable. And it is a children’s fable, but it’s a different one from Disney’s previous children’s fable with the same characters, released 55 years ago. This version approaches an alternate interpretation of the original, not a categorical truth that erases the original, but one which simply acknowledges its fiction (which that original film did anyway with a superior use of mythic narration to begin with, but if you’re gonna steal…). As such, the spirit of this new story is not telling the true story or giving added depth to Sleeping Beauty (as it was marketed), or even providing Maleficent’s viewpoint on the material. It is instead, another myth about the same characters, another campfire tale, so to speak, that will just happen to make more money if the folks at Disney enhance the connection between this film and their own classic. That this happens to the point where they are essentially lying about the content of the film they’ve made is a shame, but it shouldn’t detract from the film itself.
Fittingly, the tone then is very much in the Disney spirit of jumping around a story that moves less with the grace of realist development and more with the quick, mild impression of a dream. We enter into Maleficent’s story at various points, and the film doesn’t feel the need to insist on what has happened in the interim – we’re left to wonder and capture what little details we can from Jolie’s pained, impossibly longing expressions. As was the case with Sleeping Beauty, we are less told the story than shown it in the broadest, least filled-in strokes, and asked to imagine the rest. And this approach is perfect for the material, which is very much classicist in its Hollywoody, baroque, playful fun, a type of fun that favors visual and aural immediacy and feeling over scripting complication. Thankfully, the story retains its base level emotions until the end, never feeling the need to add in unnecessary sub-plots or dead-ends, and never looking to complicate something that is at its core a simple, broad fable like the original film.
So we have the right central character and the right tone, so this must be a perfect film, right? Well, the problem is that the film doesn’t go particularly far down its own hole. It has the idea right, to make it all simple and broad like a live-action animated work. But the lack of commitment to this idea (and ultimately the lack of craft on display in the film) quickly makes “fascinatingly fragmented and base-level” seem like “just not enough meat to the story” when it doesn’t try to earn its non-completeness like it should have. Simply put, if you want to tell a story in broad strokes, those strokes had damn well better be impactful. Here, they’re mostly middling (the direction in particular leaves a lot to be desired, working down to the big corporate blockbuster mold rather than letting loose with fiery spirit and free-wheeling energy). With these as the core of the film, and with nothing in the way of more fine, pinpoint brush strokes waiting beneath to capture the little details of the world and the people, the film has a hard time ever working on an emotional level.
What’s left is undeniably beautiful, if in a way that sometimes approaches garish rather than pleasant (although the drearier imagery of Maleficent’s machinations are always eye-catching). But as a work of storytelling it refuses to just be itself and ends up slightly less eccentrically weird and wonderfully out-of-touch (and gloriously timeless) than it could have been. Still, Jolie really sells the character, even if she’s less well-realized by a script that wants to complicate her to the point where the simpler gestures of emotion, the kind we pick up in the details rather than the kind force-fed to us, are lost. And the main character being sold to us, for this kind of film, is half the battle.