The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Maleficent

Reviewed by Owen Weetch.

Director Robert Stromberg
Length 97 mins
Certificate PG / PG
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Maleficent is Disney’s (mostly) live-action retooling of their 1959 animated fairy tale Sleeping Beauty that decides to concentrate on that film’s villain and the reasons behind her alarming Christening gift. Voiced by Eleanor Audley and animated by Marc Jacobs, the hand-drawn Maleficent was a devious and wry ghoul who was having way more fun than anybody else in a fastidiously mannered movie. Possibly Walt Disney’s finest hour and fifteen minutes, Sleeping Beauty was an ornate piece that still has all the geometric splendour, haunting flatness and picturesque rigidity of a stained glass window - but Maleficent’s the stain that makes it strange.

The film opens with a cute spin on Disney’s logo, showing Sleeping Beauty’s Castle under Tinkerbell’s arch from another, less marketably symmetrical angle. In showing another side to the established story, Maleficent highlights the relativism of accepted accounts, and in doing so presents itself as a fascinating example of the postmodern fairy tale. Unlike other examples of the form such as The Princess Bride (1987) and the Shrek franchise (2001-2011), this largely avoids irony and in-jokes. Here played by Angelina Jolie, Maleficent is painted more sensitively so that her actions seem, if not justifiable, then at least understandable. In reminding us that, as Jean Renoir said in La Règle du jeu, ‘everybody has their reasons’, it teaches a far more important and healthy lesson than anything the House of Mouse has yet unleashed upon the young: that you should think twice before calling someone a bitch.

Considered alongside the recent mega-smash Frozen, it’s so heartening to see the studio put women with personalities rather than dowries front and centre. Sadly, the film isn’t quite as well constructed as that work. This perhaps derives from its nature as a live action piece. Told in broad sweeping strokes befitting the fairy tale form, the story would have perhaps benefited from animation’s adroitness at caricaturing feelings rather than the struggle of the human face to convey them. The computer-generated animation sits uneasily alongside the live action, and in some cases - most notably in the depiction of the three fairy godmothers - makes the world seem eerily and unintentionally uncanny rather than magical. Furthermore, in using live action to round out the planular spaces of the 1959 artwork, we could have hoped for a more assured use of space than is presented here. While I can see that many sumptuous fairy tale environments have been painstakingly put together in the computer, I’ll be damned if I actually know what they look like. The framing is messy and the editing is choppily arbitrary. The presentation just seems a bit rushed, like a bedtime story told hastily so that the teller can get themselves back downstairs in time to catch the beginning of the new Game of Thrones.

Despite these gripes, it’s worth seeing, and a great deal of care has gone into its conception even if its execution seems a little slapdash. And it would be remiss to end without mentioning Jolie’s performance, which is worth the price of admission alone. Her Maleficent is a grand study in stillness, in its capacity for both mystery and evocativeness. Due to her lack of movement, the film has no excuse to descend into its representational weaknesses, and the film flies when she’s left alone to regally command close ups and medium long shots. Wickedness and dejection, innocence and experience dance about her frame without her having to lift even a finger. Maybe she should have directed the thing.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on June 11, 2014.

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