Maleficent is the third in Disney’s live action “we ran out of ideas” movies. The first, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, had its fair share of problems, specifically it’s oddly fake-looking world and oversimplified fantasy plot. Of course, none of that mattered because the movie made over a billion (!) dollars worldwide.
And so three years later Disney did it all over again and we got Oz, The Great and Powerful. Oz only made about half a billion, but hey, that’s still half a billion. So, I guess it’s no surprise that third time is not the charm and Maleficent continues to follow the fairly charming but oddly soulless, deeply flawed formula of its two predecessors.
Maleficent’s interesting premise effectively rewrites the story told in Disney’s animated classic Sleeping Beauty, putting the focus on the main villain — what’s-her-name — played here by Angelina Jolie and her computer animated cheekbones. Like Oz and Alice, the movie is rated PG but it attempts to be a little more edgy with a colorful fantasy world tricked out with supposedly-epic action moments and admittedly cool-looking CGI creatures.
The effects themselves are not bad in the simplest sense– the dragon still looks like a dragon, the castle looks like a castle. The big problem here is that everything from the creatures to the backgrounds feel detached from the actors. If you’ve seen Alice in Wonderland or Oz, you may already know what I mean. It doesn’t feel like the characters could reach out and touch the world if they wanted to. Instead, it usually feels like they’d touch a big green screen…because that’s exactly what would happen.
It’s the filmmakers’ job to use CGI to help immerse the audience, but in these three movies, the CGI only serves to take you out of the experience. One of the worst cases in Maleficent are the three fairy characters who are comprised of CGI bodies with real actress’ faces grafted on (Juno Temple, Professor Umbridge, and some other lady). In addition to the characters being the epitome of annoying, this effect (used much better but still not perfectly in The Hobbit films) are absolutely horrendous to look at. I can see people re-watching this movie in about ten years and laughing at how fake everything looked.
The attempt to make a movie that balances family audiences with those looking for a more straightforward blockbuster also hurts the movie. This is basically a wholesome fairytale about the relationship between Maleficent and the young princess she curses, but for some reason there has to be a big, violent fantasy battle at the beginning, I suppose in order to give the trailers some good footage. This fight scene is hilarious in its PG-ness, as a bunch of sword-wielding dudes get absolutely wrecked by giant monsters, but at the end of the fight every one of them gets up and runs away. No casualties, no blood.
Then there’s the equally-forced grand finale action set piece, likely because they had to put their special effects budget into something. At least this time it makes sense to have a dragon because there’s a dragon in the original, but again this sequence comes out of nowhere, doesn’t last long enough, and includes no sense of urgency. I have no problem with the concept that kids don’t need the same kind of sophisticated stakes as adults, but the movie is very clearly aiming these scenes at older audiences anyway in an attempt to reach as many demographics as possible. But that balance is a delicate one, and this film does not strike it.
The good news is that Disney made two great casting choices which carry the movie a long way. Certainly, they knew that casting Johnny Depp as the villain in Alice in Wonderland was that film’s main attraction, and after James Franco’s weak performance in Oz, it only makes sense that they would cast a big, established star to lead this one. Enter Angelina Jolie. Plus, Jolie has been offscreen for just long enough that her presence would be an event of its own.
The other main cast member, Elle Fanning, is able to hold her own next to Jolie, which should surprise nobody who has seen Fanning in anything she’s been in (Super 8, Somewhere, etc). Despite the script’s bland dialogue, so much of both performances are in their facial expressions and body language. With every single glance, Jolie gives the movie a sense of genuine creepiness that almost makes up for the artificiality of pretty much everything else. In comparison, Sharlto Copley is as boring as possible as the king. Maybe that’s the point given the movie’s female focus, but I am becoming more and more suspicious that the guy is not the big up-and-coming star District 9 made us think he’d be.
The relationship between Maleficent and Fanning’s Princess Aurora are fairly interesting, hinting at sophisticated concepts of jealousy, remorse, and redemption that unfortunately never go anywhere. An antihero movie could have been a fascinating direction to explore within the Disney universe, but usually Jolie is just left to stare ominously at others, meaning we get very little actual exploration of what it’s like to be the bad guy.
One last, very important thing to note: There’s a moment in this movie — probably the most important moment in the entire thing, which may seem familiar to you. That’s because it’s literally ripped straight from another Disney movie that came out less than a year ago, and everyone has seen. I can’t stress how odd it is that they’d do the same thing twice in such a short amount of time, but it’s kind of hilarious to witness.
So yeah. Overall, If you liked Alice in Wonderland or Oz, The Great and Powerful, you’re pretty much guaranteed to at least enjoy Maleficent for its visuals and performances. If you didn’t like those movies, there is no way in hell you’ll like this. Meanwhile, Disney will continue to spin out these generic, visually-askew, vaguely-family-friendly movies until people stop seeing them. See you guys when Alice in Wonderland 2 comes out (no seriously, that’s actually happening in 2016).
Score: 2.5 out of 5