It doesn’t take long for “Maleficent,” Disney’s snazzy 3-D update to “Sleeping Beauty” featuring Angelina Jolie as the forlorn villainess, to unite its two strongest ingredients: the special effects and the star who compliments them.
After a colorful prologue in which the titular fairy grows up in the wondrous outskirts of a kingdom, the character grows up to become the reigning figure of a fantastical world constantly at odds with the warmongering humans across the way. Director Robert Stromberg—making his feature-length debut after an impressive effects career with credits ranging from “Pan’s Labyrinth” to “Life of Pi”— doesn’t skimp on the vibrant imagery that brings Maleficient’s world of oddball J.R.R. Tolkien-like figures, with talking trees and giddy pixies swirling about a mystical land.
But the chief special effect is no less than Jolie herself, portraying the winged creature with a stern gaze that supersedes her supernatural abilities. When in the midst of a showdown with the kingdom’s army early on, Maleficient sports an evil grin as her beastly forces rise up from the ground and flank her in battle, and Stromberg pauses for a majestic closeup of his powerful anti-hero. Her radiant cheekbones and menacing smirk induce more chills in eye-popping 3-D than any of the marvelous visuals preceding them. Angelina Jolie doesn’t play Maleficient so much as Maleficient plays her.
But the movie tries to offer a little more than that: a revised storyline in which Maleficient gets her wings clipped by the only human she thinks she can trust (Sharlto Copley) so he can use them as an excuse to impress his dying father and become the next king. Traumatized by the incident, Maleficient curses the king’s daughter—that’d be the sleeping beauty curse—only to grow enamored of the young woman in her teen years (when she’s portrayed by a stilted Elle Fanning) and struggle with regret. Like “Frozen,” this Disney update to a classic Brothers Grimm tale represents one more blatant stab at a progressive approach to politically-correct fantasy in which the prince is no longer a panacea. (Even so, it still casts its main female character as a lunatic driven to disastrous acts of vengeance by a self-interested dude.) Mainly, though, it’s a technological marvel starring the world’s biggest celebrity: the full weight of Hollywood spectacle incarnate.
However, “Maleficient” marks a dispiriting move for Jolie. Her career as an action star kicked off with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” took on its strongest manifestations in “Salt” and “Wanted,” and has always contained a streak of innovation. Watching Jolie kick and blast her way to victory, it was impossible not to see her feats as an active metaphor for the process of achieving radical change within the restrictions of the studio system. Not only was she a female action star, but she associated with original concepts. Viewed alongside her two feature-length directing efforts, the impressively grim Serbian war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey” and the upcoming “Unbroken,” the story of an Olympic runner taken prisoner by Japanese forces during WWII, Jolie’s latest career path is nearly subversive: an attempt to utilize her fame in service of smarter projects and serious ideas.
“Maleficent” is like the dime store version of that effort. It’s a dazzling showcase of fantasy-based filmmaking in the 21st century that also manages a feeble attempt at injecting feminist politics into an antiquated narrative. Yet its eventual climax strains from the obviousness of these efforts, as if the filmmakers decided to forgo storytelling cohesiveness in favor of its forward-leaning implications. At the end of the day, it’s another franchise effort in fancy clothing. This should come as no surprise: Hollywood has never been a haven for subtlety. But anyone impressed by Jolie’s capacity to make the business bend to her will should expect more.
It’s impossible to consider the possibilities at Jolie’s disposal without also analyzing the similar career trajectory found with her partner Brad Pitt. The other half of the world’s biggest celebrity coupling pre-Kim and Kanye has managed to inject topicality and intelligence into the blockbuster formula with “World War Z,” which was guided to fruition by his Plan B Entertainment, the same company that threw its weight behind “12 Years a Slave.” Yet no matter how much clout Pitt carries, it’s Jolie who has the superior screen presence, as her majestic closeups in “Maleficient” prove to a fault. Rather than associating with Disney’s transparent stabs at updating its library of stories, Jolie’s presence is better-served with material that could use her influence: complex, challenging narratives that push back on assumptions about the dominant tendencies of commercial cinema by making it more adult-friendly.
This isn’t an outrageous demand; as a filmmaker, Jolie has shown a sophistication that none of her recent roles have offered up since her turn in Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart,” a flawed but engaging real-world narrative that provided the first indication of the sort of stories she would eventually tell from behind the camera. That was seven years ago. Perhaps the actress could take some tips from her directorial instincts and leave the realm of juvenile stories to the factories obsessed with making them.
“Maleficent” opens nationwide today. Check out more reactions from the Criticwire Network.