Saturday, May 31, 2014

Maleficent star Jolie is solid, but there is not enough Magic to Save the Film

Maleficent (2 1/2 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by: Robert Stromberg 
Written by: Linda Woolverton (Alice in Wonderland)
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, and Sharlto Copley

A long time ago in land far away a young three year old named Kevin (that's me) told family that my favorite Disney character was in fact Maleficent.  I don't remember why, but that stuck with me throughout the years.  I have always wondered why this character left me so enamored. Rebecca Keegan from the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece a day ago, which speaks to why people love this character.

Keegan wrote Maleficent "represented a charismatic alternative to traditional, passive fairy-tale heroines."  Modern day Disney has started to side step this with Mulan, Anna, Elsa, Tiana, and a few more.  While as a young man I did not need a strong female character, but Maleficent represented a strong charismatic individual; she was a rebel, bold and brazen.  While I was not the biggest rebel as a child my indentity had a rebellious nature, and this character speaks to this piece of me.  I also often found that I connected with this type of representation with women, because it powerful, and was different than the way "othered" males were represented.  Maleficent as a live action tale with a strong female slant excited me, but the final result weighs too heavily on style over substance.

This live action revisionist tale of the Disney villain shows Maleficent as a young fairy who befriends a human boy named Stefan.  The two form a close friendship, and eventually fall in love, but their relationship suffers because of the divide between their two kingdoms.  For some reason Stefan who was born into a poor family starts to let his darker human side take over for him,  while Maleficent grows to be a leader amongst her people.  Without giving too much away, in attempt to win the King's  favor Stefan ends up cutting off Maleficent's wings, betraying their love in order to claim power.  Maleficent then turns into the Disney villain you have seen in the past.

After the initial revision of the classic story screen writer Linda Wolverton begins to use the traditional aspects of the Disney take on Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty, there are the three fairies, the curse, the crow, and a few other nuggets.  One of my biggest problems at what launches the film is Sharlto Copley's Stefan is the reason Maleficent becomes a villain; she curses him because he betrayed her.  While this is only a piece of it, the other involves losing her wings which give her joy.  

Wolverton was attempting to create a complex feminist character; she was aiming to construct a strong point about love, identity, and strength, through the symbolism of Maleficent' wings being cut.  The problem is there is not enough depth to Stefan, Copley is a note villain, and his only motive seems to be grasping for power, but you see nothing about him developing as a child.  I admire Wolverton's attempt to show what happens when men are uncomfortable with female power, but was that case with Stefan, or was he just greedy himself?  Wolverton uses narration rather than imagery to show Stefan's decent into this power hungry man, and even as he grows crazy attempting to protect his daughter you lose out on the person, because he loses his humanity.  I wanted more character development outside of Maleficent.

Wolverton's writing of the three fairies, Flittle, Knotgrass, and Thistlewitt as incompetent baby sitters who "raise" Aurora is  the most puzzling. I think these women were meant to be comic relief, but they were not funny.  Their representation seems to be the antithesis of the scripts metaphor.  Wolverton never wants to pull focus from the central character, and that's one of the flaws within Maleficent; she believes in that character so much that she does not let the rest of the film succeed. Wolverton's script is not bad, and the message at the end is strong, proving that love and care for a person can be shown on many different levels is great, but I think she tried to do too much.  Most of the time the film tries to do too much because of the direction.

Enter first time director, and Academy Award winning Art Director (Alice in Wonderland) and Visual Effects designer/supervisor etc Robert Stromberg.  Stromberg has done a great job over the years creating some of the most visually stunning films, but often those films like Alice in Wonderland value the style over substance policy, and that is the problem with this film as well.  Stromberg not only wants Jolie's to cackle do the walking, but that the visual effects, and production design take over the film, and most of these aspects of the film are stunning, and well done, you can tell these areas are Stromberg's strengths, but his direction makes the film feel messy, and tedious.  

Jolie thankfully makes the film more watchable, and mildly entertaining.  Jolie gives a great layered performance, and you can tell she has fun in the role.  I have to wonder was there too much Maleficent? Putting all the focus on this one character seems to push all other character development aside. Copley is still a one note villain.  Fanning is fine as a Aurora, but her story feels rushed. It would have been interesting keep the same message about this character, but also allow multiple character arcs to develop, including Aurora, and Stefan who's relationships with Maleficent felt rushed.  There was a lack of an emotional connection that made the story fall flat.  

Overall the film falls flat. Jolie's performance does not have enough magic to save Maleficent; she is talented actress, and Linda Wolverton's script is ambitious, but the material does not let you care enough to be successful

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