First reviews have swooped in for “Maleficent,” Disney’s take on the “Sleeping Beauty” classic arch villain here played by a wickedly gorgeous Angelina Jolie, a ringer for the iconic character. Per critics, the news is good and bad. The film, helmed by Oscar-winning VFX artist Robert Stromberg making his directorial debut, is a suitably sumptuous visual feast. And Jolie kicks ass, clearly reveling in the role. But the message and story seem to have gotten muddled along the way, making reviewers wonder whether this fairytale is more regressive than revisionist.
Highlights from reviews, below. “Maleficent” arrives May 30.
Now almost midway through the year, 2014 seems unlikely to
produce many more visually arresting, brilliantly designed,
stoned-college-kid-friendly pieces of eye candy than Disney’s “Maleficent.” As
for its revisionist take on the travails of the iconic “Sleeping Beauty”
villainess, however, it falls far short of something an imaginative fan-fiction
scribe, let alone obvious role models John Gardner or Gregory Maguire, might
have crafted from the material. Uncertain of tone, and bearing visible scarring
from what one imagines were multiple rewrites, the film fails to probe the
psychology of its subject or set up a satisfying alternate history, but it sure
is nice to look at for 97 minutes. Boasting an impressive and impeccably
costumed Angelina Jolie in the title role, it ought to prove a solid global
moneymaker and merchandise-minter for the Mouse House.
Jolie’s face has been digitally tweaked to bring out its
edges and planes and her cheekbones are razor sharp. Maleficent has horns (not
necessarily evil ones), a dark head-dress that may or may not be physically
part of her head, and a sharp, bony ring that makes it look, from a distance,
as if she is always smoking a fag. Elle Fanning plays the sweet-natured
princess, who is entirely upstaged by Jolie. Her performance has a vinegary
touch of panto, something to compare with her role as Alexander the Great’s mum
in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) and Grendel’s mum in Robert Zemeckis’s
Beowulf (2007). I’d forgotten what a fierce screen presence Jolie is: she is becoming
the Sophia Loren of our age. Now I want to see her in a grownup film.
No stranger to larger-than-life characters, Angelina Jolie
doesn’t chew the estimable scenery in Maleficent — she infuses it, wielding a
magnetic and effortless power as the magnificently malevolent fairy who places
a curse on a newborn princess. Her iconic face subtly altered with prosthetics,
she’s the heart and soul (Maleficent has both, it turns out) of Disney’s
revisionist, live-action look at its most popular cartoon villain, the self-described
Mistress of All Evil from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. A few bumpy patches
notwithstanding, the new feature is an exquisitely designed, emotionally
absorbing work of dark enchantment.
The action sequences are executed with rhythm and punch, and
our heroine swoops and swirls around like Iron Man in a sheath dress.
Maleficent may be short on true enchantment, but until we find a superhero who
can pull off a black silk cocktail gown in battle, she’s very welcome.
Like Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent considers itself
a revisionist fairy tale that spins a demonized witch into a feminist icon.
Hardly. Both movies hinge on a man, as though the sheer power of being rejected
by one dude is enough to make any girl nuts. Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of
the West can terrify armies, but they cede their emotional strength to a mortal
twerp. At least in Wicked, the topsy-turvy retelling that started the trend,
the witch turned evil because of her politics. As did Mystique in X-Men: Days
of Future Past, who would respond with a sneer if invited on a
manicures-and-ice-cream girl-power date with Maleficent.
Still, Jolie carries her embittered witch with the dignity
“Maleficent” desperately tries to create a
character whose motivation you will understand and empathize with. But the
screenplay and direction are such a tangled, thorny patch of conflicting ideas
that it’s hard to tell what that motivation is supposed to be. Maleficent has
been made cuddly, a wicked witch who introduces a young girl to the fairy world
just beyond her realm, but on both a narrative and thematic level this feels
like a worse betrayal than Stefan clipping her wings. Maleficent was a
character so furious and powerful that she transformed herself into a fearsome
dragon; in this movie she’s happy to just make her lackey do it. It’s that lack
of strength that makes “Maleficent” even more damnable; in 2014 the
Mistress of All Evil is just another victim.