If there’s one thing Disney doesn’t understand, it’s outsiders. The company ethos embraces a “hooray for everything” approach, seeking to unify all races, colors and creeds beneath his all-encompassing mouse ears. That’s actually not a knock, and when dealing with material that caters to acceptance and common ground, it does quite well for itself. But when it starts coloring outside the lines, it runs into big trouble very quickly. Small wonder they periodically turn to Tim Burton when they want to get a little rebellious. That’s part of what makes its live-action Sleeping Beauty reboot such a curiosity, and why despite some admirable qualities, Maleficent simply can’t make the grade. Hit the jump for my full review.
As befits a big-budget production, you can expect a number of things going in. First off is the copious CGI to create its fairy-tale world: so overwhelming that one wonders why they didn’t just animate the whole thing and be done with it. To that, add a wonky, unwieldy story about how one of Disney’s greatest villainesses (Angelina Jolie) is simply a misunderstood soul: wounded by betrayal and engineering Sleeping Beauty’s enchantment as a form of revenge. None of the pieces quite fit, and while the film looks impressive, its story has no real idea of what it wants to say. It can’t quite embrace Maleficent as an anti-hero, nor can it imbue her with the sympathy and humanity it so clearly wishes to: not without eliminating her glorious wickedness in the first place. She loves being bad, as we saw in the original animated feature, but while that glee finds a few moments to perk us up here, Maleficent can’t reconcile it with the rage and darkness it supposedly conceals.
Thus does the story shift randomly back and forth between alternating priorities, reducing events to empty sound and noise, and leaving only the broadest sense of character motivation to pull us through. Having cursed the young Aurora to fall into an enchanted sleep, Maleficent watches the girl grow up and has a semi-change in heart, though not enough to act with the swiftness such a shift demands. When the moments of truth arrive, we can’t tell where she might go, and her motives thus become arbitrary and meaningless rather than conflicted and resolute. Director Robert Stromberg responds in true blockbuster fashion by trying to drown it all in sturm und drang, which holds our attention to be sure, but ultimately proves as pointless as any Michael Bay film.
That leaves only the casting, and here at least Maleficent bats one out of the park. Celebrity culture has become so devalued these days, with stars and star power decreasing in wattage every year. Jolie reminds us why she’s a household name: deftly skating around the character’s inconsistencies and proving as irresistible in her fury as she is in her glee. We’d almost forgotten what made her so appealing to begin with, and her irresistible turn here puts us all on notice: that such absent-mindedness is not acceptable.
Would that she alone could make Maleficent a worthwhile endeavor. She comes closer than she has any right to and there are moments in the film that positively glow with her magnetism. But the rest of it sits hollow and purposeless, another empty cash grab from a studio that often asks for too much from its impressive stable of classics. They’ll try again with Cinderella next year, and perhaps a more traditional approach will do it some good. Maleficent simply requires a different way of thinking, one that not only runs against its chosen ethos, but which it never displayed much aptitude for in the first place. Disney does a lot of things right, provided it sticks to the game plan. Despite its honorable intentions, Maleficent reveals exactly what happens when The Mouse goes off the reservation.
The Blu-ray is a slick package, as befits Disney’s commitment to a gorgeous viewing experience. The image is stunning, while the sound quality reflects the subtleties beneath all of the box office bombast. Extra features are fairly run-of-the-mill, though fans of the film should appreciate them. They include a short piece on Elle Fanning (who plays Aurora) and her love for the original animated feature; a look at adapting the film from the original; a piece on the battle sequences; a general behind-the-scenes doc; an examination of Jolie’s incredible costume; and a collection of deleted scenes. None of them run longer than 10 minutes, and they leave you feeling like a lot more could be done had the producers wished it.