Movie review: Maleficent (spoilers)

I can’t do this review justice taking my usual no-spoilers stance, so this is a review of Maleficent with spoilers. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, it is a critique of Maleficent. I would imagine that the majority of people who planned to see Maleficent have by now done so (I was rather late to the game about seeing it) but if you haven’t and do plan to see it, be warned that this post is going to be full of spoilers.

On the face of it, Maleficent is exactly the right sort of film for now – a reimaining of a fairy tale, told from the villain’s perspective, while acknowledging that not everything is good vs evil – there are shades of grey in here. Starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, it sought to show a sympathetic side of Maleficent, whose actions in cursing Princess Aurora, though far from pure, were certainly motivated by very human emotions.

Maleficent

I did enjoy the film. What I have to say about it in this critique might give the impression that I did not enjoy it, but I did. It had just the right amount of comedy in it to stop it from becoming overly dark and self-indulgent, and if weren’t for the fact that it was a bit rushed, especially at the start, it would have been a very solid film. But there were a lot of little things wrong with it, and one or two big things.

I’ll start with running through the little things:

  • The opening sequence, with a young Maleficent and Stefan, both dragged on and filled up too much time. It seemed there was a lot to fit into this prologue section, and it didn’t seem to be handled very well. The word my fiancé used of it was “hamfisted”, and I can’t say I disagree.
  • When the old King leads an army to the border between the human and fairy lands, the arrangement of the troops is clearly designed for maximum visual impact on a modern audience rather than any sort of tactical consideration – with a couple of rows of intermingled spearmen and swordsmen along the front, followed by a single row of cavalry. It boggles the mind that these three types of troops were all in an arrangement like this. The cavalry should be a separate unit and the spearmen and swordsmen should not be in the same row, but one type in front of the other, depending on what troops they’re facing, at the very least. Now, it might seem petty to bring this us and maybe you saw the movie and didn’t even notice, but for me it broke suspension of disbelief – which the movie never regained.
  • Another example of lack of military know-how came later when the humans attempted to use trebuchets to hurl burning stuff at the wall of thorns to burn it down. Trebuchets are long range siege weapons, inaccurate but powerful, capable of sending a missile hundreds of metres. And yet they were positioned perhaps thirty metres from the thorns at which they were aiming – close enough that when Maleficent magicked the thorns to attack the trebuchets, there wasn’t any trouble in reaching them.
  • Prince Philip was just dull. It felt like he was included because the original story has a prince so he has to be there, but he didn’t fit in. His few scenes showed him to be flat and lacking any sort of personality and gave no indication as to why it was he ended up with Aurora. His inclusion felt last minute and was poorly executed.
  • The CGI. Don’t get me wrong, it was fine, but oh boy did they spend a lot of effort showing it off. Some of it was as part of the plot, and that’s fine, but there was a brief bit, maybe 20 seconds, in which Maleficent magically rips up a drystone wall, or rather, a pair of drystone walls running parallel to one another as she walks between them. It was a pointless scene used only to say “look what we can do with CGI!”. It was CGI masturbation.

So that’s the little things. Now for the big things:

Iron

It is established early in the film, when Stefan’s ring burns Maleficent, that iron doesn’t play nice with magical beings. It is Maleficent’s greatest weakness, used later in the movie in a chain net to trap her. But it was included in the movie in a number of contexts that clearly demonstrated that Maleficent’s weakness to iron was plot-dependent. It only troubled her when the plot needed it to.

Case in point: in the battle scene at the start when the old king leads his oddly deployed troops to attack the fairy land, Maleficent flies through the soldiers, scattering them like bowling pins. And yet they are armed and armoured in iron. They should be doing at least as much harm to her as she does to them as she knocks them down. She should be covered in burns and bruises after he flight. But no, she’s fine.

Later, Maleficent uses magic on a group of armed men, again all wearing iron armour. She can make one of the levitate. Thus it is demonstrated that she can still perform magic on people wearing iron – a feat not replicated later in the climactic battle when she completely fails to use magic against the men surrounding her with giant iron shields.

And during the party celebrating Aurora’s birth, even though at the very least Stefan knows Maleficent is harmed by iron, he never seeks to use it against her as she curses his daughter.

It’s inconsistent and it shows iron is being used as a plot device only when it is convenient for the plot, its potential influence ignored when the story doesn’t require it. It shows that, as with the military abilities of the human kingdom, not a huge amount of thought has gone into things. And for the record, this isn’t even fridge logic (warning: TV topes link) – this is something my fiancé and I noticed as we were watching it, right from the first battle, through the big party and the armed men in the woods right to the finale.

Jolie’s performance

I must say, I don’t think Angelina Jolie was the right casting choice for the title role. I guess it could depend on your interpretation, and it could be partly a weakness in the writing, but I was not convinced by her. She seemed to struggle to convey emotions – and I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt here and suggest that the huge prosthetic cheekbones might have made facial expressions difficult – but I don’t think most of the emotions she should have been conveying were really all there.

And perhaps it was because of how rushed the movie was, but I found her character inconsistent too. One moment vengeful and downright sinister, the next playing pranks on the three fairies acting as Aurora’s guardian, and after that lacking any sort of human socialisation (which Maleficent certainly possessed earlier in the movie) when interacting directly with the toddler Aurora – an odd and pointless scene – before again being a complete villain, magicking thorns to attack men sent to bring the thorn wall down with trebuchets. When she plays tricks on the three fairies, she comes across as petty, not villainous; and yet a few scenes earlier, she thought it was appropriate to curse a baby to punish the baby’s father. As with the iron, this portray – which seeks to be sympathetic – presents as inconsistent.

Just another story

I came out of the cinema feeling that, while I’d enjoyed my time in there, the movie failed to live up the hype. There was something lacking about it, something other films, even films I thought were fairly average, all had. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised what it was. The movie presents itself as the real story behind the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, putting in place the motivations and explanations required so you can see how the fairy tale got it “wrong”. Except it fails in presenting it as a “real truth” behind the fairytale.

Maleficent’s inconsistent character, the rushed story, the mistakes and the dull prince, and the narration over the top of the story, all added up to give the impression that this isn’t the real story at all, but just another story with some of the same elements, told from a different point of view, but just as much a fairytale as the original. It tried to be something it wasn’t. It wasn’t believable, it was just another fairy story. For most films, you can buy into the world and the story while watching it, ignore the niggling little things and just accept the story as being some form of truth, even if it’s full of fantasy – dragons, dwarfs, vampires and magic – but for Maleficent it never stopped being a story. It never became a world of its own, like the Hobbit movies or even Jack the Giant Slayer (which I watched again on DVD on Friday).

In the end…

There were definitely bits I liked. The three fairies brought some good comedy to the movie and I loved the character Diaval, the raven Maleficent turned into a man (I’m a total sucker for the darker characters and oh god that accent) – I sort of hoped, sort of expected, that the “true love’s kiss” as the end would be his, but I guess the way the film played it worked fine too.

But overall, it didn’t work. There was too much wrong with Maleficent. So I can only rate it 6/10. And at least two of those points are because I totally have a crush on Sam Riley for his Diaval now.

diaval

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