If you have ever wondered what a Disney rape-revenge movie would look like, then Maleficent is the movie for you! There’s a fascinating, very adult movie lurking somewhere underneath the Uncanny Valley hellscape of Maleficent’s shiny surfaces, but it’s continually compromised by having to try to fit safely into a family entertainment molding. The entire thing is more fascinating as hybrid failure than it is as an entire work.
The major problems of the movie start early and reoccur often. Janet McTeer’s narration is ham-fisted and unnecessary. The Moors, the mythological forest where Maleficent lives and much of the action takes place, lacks grit, texture, or any tether to a physical world as it’s an oppressive CGI monstrosity populated by cutesy critters and a few impressively designed creatures. A simplistic worldview of “men are bad, women are good; friendship is good, sex is bad.” While the forest and its denizens are clearly striving for Hayao Miyazaki-like wonder and awe, but clearly doesn’t understand or capture the more complicated worldview that his film possess.
Still, there’s a few bright spots buried within. The most obvious one is Angelina Jolie’s performance where she’s clearly having a ball getting to play as big and broad as she wants. She’s most unnerving and engrossing in the role in her stillest moments where her preternatural regality and inhumane otherness give her Maleficent an animalistic edge. Sure, watching her bellow and rage is pleasing, but she’s downright scary in scenes where she speaks slowly and her movements are limited towards a tilt of the head or a subtle movement in her facial muscles.
While the CGI is omnipresent and rubbery, there’s still a rich sense of color that is so blinding and vibrant that it threatens to bleed out of the frame at any moment. There’s also a certain beauty and haunting grace to the living tree creatures, especially a gigantic serpent-like beast that glides through the earth with the fluidity of a dolphin in the sea. And Maleficent’s servant, Diaval, a crow she changes into a human (Sam Riley), a wolf-like beast, a feathered horse, and a dragon. While the dragon’s effects pale in comparison to Drogon on Game of Thrones, its feathered design and slithering movements are quite engaging in the moment.
Yet for these measly positives, the film is largely a muddled and confused misfire wrapped up in a cellophane case to try and keep it all sealed up. The “brand deposit” description thrown around by Disney’s own movers and shakers perfectly encapsulate what is wrong with these live-action retreads. They turn the company into a dog eating its own vomit by leashing the creative teams and only giving them so free a reign to explore. Maleficent has some darker impulses, but they’re routinely defanged and declawed by the Mouse House’s demands.
It’s clear that Mickey and company were chasing the Lord of the Rings dollars, but never bothered to study just what made that trilogy so effective. It wasn’t the massive hordes of CG bodies clashing over and over and over again, but the real time we spent with the characters and caring about their world, their actions, and their stakes. Maleficent is happy to give us a complicated anti-heroine, but Stefan is not even a one-note villain. Maybe a better actor than Sharlto Copley could have brought more ambiguity to the role, but Copley takes any and every excuse to go big. There’s no variation to him as a character or portrayal, just the sight of an actor aggressively humping one-note over and over until his inevitable demise.
The best scene is the morning after where Jolie goes from disbelief to distraught victim to avenging primordial fairy. She eventually reclaims her agency, her power, and uses her anger as fuel to establish the Moors as her own kingdom with her reigning supreme. It’s shocking that Disney would ok such a dramatically rich sequence, and one that is so thematically loaded, that it stands out for the more adult film threatening to blow out of the center at any given moment.
It never does, though. We’re soon quickly saddled with the trio of fairies that must care for Aurora (predominantly played by an appropriately ethereal Elle Fanning), and they’re largely incidental to the plot. They’re merely a distaff Three Stooges, or a horrendously bad motion-capture job of the three talented ladies trying valiantly to make these parts work. Their disappearance from the narrative is large and noted, especially since their absences take place in scenes where Aurora and Maleficent form a surrogate mother-daughter bond. These three are supposed to be her guardian, and they can’t even complete the one job they were given, nor do they ever seem aware that Aurora is just gone for long stretches of time.
Maleficent is at its best when it shines its light upon the implicit symbolism of sexual violence that lurks in nearly all fairy tales, or when it merely shifts its attention to watching Jolie in her regalia that positions her as something both familiar and alien. At least the sisters doing it for themselves rethinking of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale gave something new and unique as a base guide for this movie. It’s sloppy and shackled and not entirely successful as a corrective text, but it tried. You just have to get used to staring at some eerie, ugly CGI and an overpowering mistaken thought that more-is-better.