Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Maleficent


2014 has been a strange year for movies, particularly with big-budget Hollywood films. It seems that the typical blockbusters have either been great like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or pretty disappointing such as Divergent and Transcendence. Unlike a lot of films I've been looking forward to, I had certain expectations for Maleficent. No, I wasn't thinking this would be a game-changing oscar contender, despite my inclusion of it on my oft-referenced list of most anticipated films. My expectations were simply for a passably entertaining retelling of a beloved Disney animated feature with creative visual effects and a unique take on a familiar villain. Unlike most other films this year, Maleficent exactly met my expectations.

As an adolescent fairy named Maleficent is blissfully enjoying her morning in the magical realm known as The Moors, a young boy from the neighboring kingdom of humans is caught attempting to steal a seemingly priceless stone from the riverside. Though the menacing tree guardians clearly want a greater punishment, Maleficent convinces them to settle for the boy returning the stone from where it was taken. Once the wrong had been righted, the two teenagers establish an unlikely friendship that, as these things tend to do, eventually grows into something more. The two even share what the boy named Stefan calls "true love's kiss", though they realize that the iron ring he is wearing causes the winged Maleficent pain when she touches it. Years pass and the two gradually drift apart as Stefan's ambition increases, culminating in a devastating reunion when the dying king promises to bequeath his kingdom to whoever slays the powerful "creature" that has caused him such grief.

There isn't a natural cutting off point when going into the plot summary, so I apologize if I've given away more than you wanted to know. Admittedly this is only the first 15-20 minutes, though I think it's telling that Disney has placed almost no emphasis in their marketing efforts to set up the story for this film. Luckily it's a pre-established franchise that has built-in audience appeal, not to mention the uncanny resemblance Angelina Jolie has to the title character. Knowing that such an A-list star as Jolie is playing this classic Disney villain is pretty much an instant sell for most people (myself included), so I don't necessarily blame them for marketing the film in such an ambiguous manner.

Though I did have problems with this movie, the casting is not one of them. Jolie is electric as Maleficent, not only the personification of the animated character, but also bringing emotions and nuances that I wasn't necessarily expecting. She makes me feel for her struggles, as well as her unusual relationship with the cursed Aurora. There are some genuinely funny moments in this film too, but even most of the touching moments worked really well. The ending is a satisfying culmination of the events leading up to it (I think that's about as vague as I can be), even if it does take some story elements from recent Disney films. I also appreciated the age-appropriate casting of Elle Fanning as the "Sleeping Beauty", even if I didn't think she was given a whole lot to do. She's a talented enough actress to make us connect with her despite the brief time we have with the character, and I actually bought her ultimate purpose (which actually differs quite a bit from the original animated film).

They do a pretty good job of setting up the diverging story points from the tale we knew, but there is one huge exception that I feel really hinders my enjoyment of the movie. In the original Sleeping Beauty, King Stefan was kind of an aloof figure, a little bumbling but certainly not a threatening psychotic maniac. Here they take the character so far into the villainous realm that I failed to even understand his motivations after a certain point. He's a character defined by his ambitions and greed, but from the moment we're introduced to him on screen to the christening of his child, he comes across as a person making difficult moral compromises in order to accomplish his goals. After Maleficent's dramatic reappearance, however, he seems to completely lose his mind as well as any redeeming qualities in the blink of an eye. I wish they would have made him more of a conflicted character that we could actually relate with rather than a madman we can only despise.

A lot of the other problems I had can be chalked up to this being a movie made more for children than adults. There's plenty of obvious dialogue and silly humor, but I actually kind of appreciated the child-like innocence of some of those scenes, particularly when hearing the adorable laughter of the kids in our theatre. I can already tell this will be a big hit with little girls (particularly come Halloween season), and I definitely like the fact that Disney has been evolving their depiction of women in their films. No longer are the female heroes risking everything for their man, but they have their own strength that isn't reliant on a trite love story.

In short, I don't anticipate Maleficent cracking my top ten list at the end of the year, but I do appreciate the general enjoyment this movie delivered. Pretty much everyone is going to find something to like here, and I think particularly young girls are going to really love the movie. It's a pretty solid recommend from me, even if I did have some problems with it as a whole. A good film for the family in a summer mainly devoid of kid-friendly entertainment (despite the handful of slightly scare moments), I give Maleficent three stars.

MALEFICENT is rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images


**What did you think of Maleficent? Were you rankled by the changes from the source material, or were you bewitched by Angelina Jolie's powerhouse performance?**