********* 6 out of 10 *********
Director: Robert Stromberg
Actors: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley
Hollywood has been tinkering with age-old classic fairy tales for quite sometime now. Tim Burton provided a new grandiose adventure for Alice to deal with, the Huntsman battled alongside Snow White to reclaim her throne, Hansel and Gretel grew up to be witch-hunting gun-slinging siblings, and there was a whole different world of Giants that Jack had to encounter once his beanstalk grew way too high. Disney has now reopened its own classic 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, which itself was a tinkered version of the original French fairy tale, to bring back one of the most villainous characters of those times, and show her in a different light. Maleficent. While the movie Maleficent rejuvenates the character, more so on account of Angelina Jolie’s dynamic persona than anything else, the tale itself is fabricated in an uncomplicated manner that this love-hate story eventually turns out to be one of the simplest bedtime stories ever told.
Maleficent takes us through the journey of the titular character, a powerful faerie with wings, who forms an unexpected bond with a human when she is young. An act of betrayal hardens her heart which transforms her into the evil Maleficent we have known from the older animated film. But this tale is not only about Maleficent’s conversion, rather it continues beyond that, beyond even the day when she curses Princess Aurora, and narrates a different version of sorts of Sleeping Beauty, this time from the eyes of Maleficent. How evil really is Maleficent, and is there still some warmth left in her heart?
Maleficent has a clean slate to begin with, since the claim initially made is that the tale of Sleeping Beauty as we knew is not the whole truth. Also, with the original Maleficent having appeared on screen more than five decades back, there would not be many who would be too nostalgic about tinkering with their version of the evil witch. Unfortunately, first-time director Robert Stromberg fails to utilise these elements to his advantage. The screenplay by the talented Linda Woolverton (she was involved with the writing of The Lion King after all!) is way too simplistic for the modern times, and fails to build much of the character arcs to justify their actions. Maleficent’s change from a loving faerie to a stone-hearted witch takes only a matter of minutes on the big screen, and then the subsequent softening of her heart, now and then, is handled quite inexpertly. At a time, when animated films are also fearless of building complex characters and twisting storylines, Maleficent restricts itself from coming up with anything that a five-year old toddler would not be able to understand.
Maleficent twists the 1959 story to its advantage, most of the time without worrying about keeping any links with the original, though there are moments that keep the magic of that era alive. In particular, the scene when Maleficent curses the young Aurora, something which is made to resemble the shot from the original film. A few more such shots, and maybe we would have had quite a different outlook to this movie. One thing that director Robert Stromberg does perfectly well though, given his past history in the production design and visual effects departments (Oscars won for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar), is the visual grandeur required in the film. The shots of Maleficent flying in the air, the beauty and then the darkness of the Moors (where Maleficent resides), the flame-throwing dragon, they all give the tale a larger feel. Alas, if only the likes of Tim Burton would have been handling the film, and Stromberg would have stuck to those areas where he is great at, then possibly the heart of the film would have had the right tint of malice and love in the setting of a visually enthralling landscape, making it a fairy tale worth remembering!
But to dismiss off Maleficent as an unenjoyable experience would be far from the truth. For it holds one trump card, that makes up for many of the flaws of the movie. And that card is Angelina Jolie. One cannot think of anyone else who could have done justice to this legendary character. The power of her personality keeps you hooked onto her, in every single frame. She can be beautiful and scary at the same time, she is elegant even in her devilry, she is a show-stealer. The scene when the betrayal comes to her attention, and she is left bawling, is something that feels out of place in the movie, for it is so powerful and frightening, in its own way, which is opposite to the duller mood the movie opens with. Odd as it may seem, Stromberg has failed to realise the power of the actress he had in the film, and his story does not allow her to expand her wings fully; the layers in her character are unraveled shabbily, but for what it is worth, Jolie stands out and gives the film its soul to the best of her ability. Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora, Sharlto Copley as King Stefan, and Sam Riley as the crow-changing-man, try to do their best with whatever little is given to them, but end up with rather one-dimensional personalities. The three pixies, who are entrusted with the protection of the princess, resemble the Three Stooges more than anything else. And if you didn’t know, Jolie’s daughter Vivienne plays a brief part as a young Aurora, sharing screentime too with her mother, which does make for an endearing scene.
Maleficent could have been a much more layered and powerful film, worthy of the story that the titular character deserved. Robert Stromberg though does not achieve those heights with his directorial debut. The movie nonetheless is a welcome return for Angelina Jolie on the big screen, and if nothing else, this movie makes us realise that some powers cannot be vanquished, the power of Jolie’s presence!