What to Expect?
The only reason Maleficent is probably the most anticipated and curiosity-inducing live action film since Tron: Legacy is the simple fact that being who they are, the studios at Disney have definitely made an absolutely bold move by allegedly flipping sides to the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty and giving it a sly retelling from the infamous antagonist’s vantage point. People who’ve known of the now titular evil character would definitely have loved to take off the rose-tinted glasses to look at the other side of the story. To this writer, personally, while the original source material definitely made sense when he was little – if only for the kind of hope the story aggressively tried to portray throughout its length – there was always the question of the justification to the famed antagonist and her havoc-wreaking doings. From what little the promotional material had begun to show, however, it suddenly looked like there would be a glimmer of hope to find one. And with Angelina Jolie at the helm of the titular character, one would definitely be highly curious to see if one of the most functional of fairytale characters would by any chance get multiple layers – if and only to suit her towering presence in her films.
It’s nice to see the ever hopeful Disney continuing to take unabashed risks with their backings despite quite a few gargantuan live-action failures in the form of John Carter and, more recently, The Lone Ranger. Of course, for every John Carter, there’s always a Tron: Legacy that goes on to rebuild faith in the audience for the studio’s ever growing live-action segment. Oz The Great and Powerful‘s co-producers Roth Films would definitely agree, which is why they’re back with a bang to collaborate with Disney to pull a twisted one off on their own ever popular 1959 animated musical.
Now Maleficent boasts of three absolutely powerful trump cards:
- This film marks the directorial debut of visual effects artist and production designer Robert Stromberg, whose artistry threads through popular films such as Avatar (as production designer), The Hunger Games and more recently Oz The Great and Powerful. It is thus a no-brainer to expect a big-screen extravaganza as far as visual filmmaking is considered;
- Angelina Jolie returns and looks like she’s raring to go, what with the smart promotion of the film so far; and of course
- Linda Woolverton, popular for her screenplays to animated Disney classics such as The Lion King and Aladdin, makes her return post the polarizing response to her collaboration with Tim Burton on Alice in Wonderland.
That doesn’t allow any of it’s potential risks to fade away. Woolverton’s Alice might not have been as welcomed as it should have for many a reason. To add to that, Jolie’s presence in a film could go both ways (let’s just remember to forget Life or Something Like It). What then is the outcome of this film?
What’s it About?
While that can’t be revealed just yet, what can be told, however, is that the outcome of love more often than not could lead to betrayal and heartbreak. Ask Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy; Eastenders), and she’d tell you it’s true. Living in the Moors, known for its beauty, magic and enchantment – as opposed to the neighboring, oppressed human kingdom – Maleficent is strong, fearless and eventually in love with trespassing thief Stefan (Michael Higgins). As they grow older, their bond gets stronger. Stefan’s obsession with his ambition eventually drives them apart – only for them to reunite when they’re older for a night that will change everyone’s lives.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
For those of the readers who didn’t know, Burton – who was originally supposed to sail this ship to shore – stepped out, only to be replaced by Stromberg. The good news is that his direction is aggressively focused and marks for delicious visual splendor. Scenes such as the expansively executed and composited climactic sequence are splendidly done. The colorful atmosphere has subtle references to his previous works Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. The writing by Woolwerton has an interesting set of highs, which include the infamous curse, which is paid a solid tribute to. What the movie achieves for most part is to drive the message that there will always be two sides to a story, a lesson some escapist minds will find hard figuring out. Due to this, every character graph has a dynamic set of highs and lows. This in turns blurs the lines between the good and the evil inside of them, leaving behind a grey area the viewers can relate to.
Woolwerton seems to excel in the smooth shift of the film’s varied tones. This is not surprising, considering her adept work in The Lion King, which is vividly bright one moment and devastatingly dark the next. This aspect of hers pops nicely out in live action. And although there’s a slight Alice hangover, Stromberg gives it his own spin of things as compared to the maverick Burton’s maneuvers. Should he choose to direct the right films in the future, he definitely has an interesting future ahead of him considering his visual expertise.
What the screenplay also effectively does is to perfectly mix up the mythology of the original source materials (by Charles Perrault and The Brothers Grimm) of the 1959 adaptation, by paying homage to some iconic moments, completely retelling some elements, and mixing some up so as to form a clearer picture throughout the story. One will, thus, find a subtle – yet undeniable – thread of logic throughout its world of fantasy. That in itself is a success.
For its highs, the screenwriting has its lows too. The first half drags on for quite a bit. Understanding fully well that the whole of it was necessary for the evolution of the titular character and justification of her angst, there were a few other ways this part of the script could have been taken. During this time, quite a few parts that should generate the most impact seem to be devoid of the requisite emotion they need to portray them. Characterization of the pixie fairies are not up to the mark – and at certain points, they do manage to get on the viewers’ nerves. Of course, there are so many things in the second half of the film that make up for it. Besides the film having an exceptional emotional relevance, the movie takes interesting turns, making parallel shifts between the film’s two major sides, culminating in an immensely satisfying end.
What also drives the film forward is the exceptional technical prowess it exhibits. Right from Dean Semler’s (2012) amazing cinematography, making use of lighting to high effect, to the collaborative camera operations, the movie excels visually. Add to that some effective color grading, and you’ve got a film that knows its dynamic tones very well. The visual effects are brilliant, ranging from the surreal to the realistic. the 3D modelling of the varied creatures in the Moors definitely deserve brownie points. Production designers Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman succeed in bringing to the frame a convinving, immersive otherworld. The problem with the visual effects here would only probably be the lack of consistency. Some creatures look slightly out of place for a live action movie. A perfect example for the same would probably be the pixie fairies. That, however, could also be noticeable due to the issue of their unconvincing characterizations. Editing by Chris Lebenzon (Unstoppable) and Richard Pearson (Quantum of Solace) is strong and spaced out, enough for the viewer to absorb emotion. Music by James Newton Howard effectively rouses emotions of happiness, thrill and pain through the scenes it supports. Watch out for Lana Del Ray’s exclusively created, darkly surreal spin on Once Upon a Dream. Brilliance!
To Perform or Not to Perform
A film like this needs to have a strong performer playing the anti-protagonist, and Angelina Jolie contributes to it like no other. Unlike a lot of her other films, she goes for an extreme makeover to become what is to be seen in the film, and she succeeds. The film majorly works – even in its limp places – due to her towering presence and unabashed contribution to Maleficent. Sharlto Copley (District 9) as King Stefan does nicely, although there seems to be something amiss in patches. Elle Fanning is particularly strong as Princess Aurora. She walks a tightrope, giving all her earnestness to a risky performance that – without conviction – could end up downright cheesy and annoying. Imelda “Dolores Umbridge” Staunton, Juno Temple (Mr. Nobody) and Leslie Manville (Romeo and Juliet) are in parts lovable, and in parts annoying. Sam Riley (Control) as Diaval handles his cocky character with utmost ease. Isobelle Molloy as younger Maleficent functions well. Others are good.
Overall, Maleficent is a difficult film to give a stoic final opinion on. The writer of this article will, however, state this: it is a highly interesting and relatively fresh outlook on the other side of the coin. Featuring a confident debut by Robert Stromberg and a screenplay with an interesting character evolution process, the movie boasts of mostly arresting visuals and fantastic direction even at times of the screenplay getting bumpy.
Massively worth the big screen experience – and if not, just for Jolie and her passionate portrayal of Maleficent.
Star Rating: 3.5 / 5