Maleficent is both far better than it sounds and nowhere near as good as it promises to be.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
That was from an article posted on The Hollywood Reporter back in October concerning reshoots for Maleficent. I’m really rather hoping that Disney didn’t pay too much for those reshoots because the first 30 minutes of Maleficent are really not good. When your film begins by featuring a child actress who is straining so very, very hard to act with every fibre of her being, whilst her character is being sickeningly nice and sweet as that “acting” is going on, first impressions are not going to be very favourable. Fortunately for all involved, Maleficent does get better. In fact, you can pretty much pinpoint the exact minute the film starts getting good, when it settles into its groove and starts doing the stuff it clearly wanted to do from the beginning.
Unfortunately, though, Maleficent has been cut down to within an inch of its life. Running at a svelte 96 minutes with credits, and with a really poor opening 30, this is a film that breathlessly sprints through everything it has to offer at 300MPH and only laying the barest groundwork necessary for its big emotional arc and switcheroo finale to work; instead relying on Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning to carry them through. It almost works. When the film settles into its groove, it’s a very good re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty and its emotional beats do land. Unfortunately, that groundwork is full of bags of potential that never get realised because of the poor opening and the extreme shortness of its runtime.
That opening, for those that are interested, concerns a child Maleficent who lives in the forest kingdom and is the kindest and nicest fairy who ever lived a life of being kind and nice. One day, she encounters a human child, Stefan, who snuck into the forest kingdom and the two become friends, apparently, and later lovers, apparently. The years go by, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) grow older and further apart, with Maleficent leading the defence force of the forest kingdom from a human army who wish to wipe them out because… humans are dicks? Anyways, the king, on his deathbed after a battle with Maleficent, puts out a hit on her and the opportunistic Stefan uses his old friendship with her as a way in. Unable to pull the trigger and straight kill her, Stefan instead steals her wings, takes the throne based on a lie and leaves Maleficent a woman scorned and determined for revenge.
Yes, that does sound like the film bending over backwards and then some in an attempt to make Maleficent a sympathetic protagonist. Stay with me, we’re almost at the part where it starts getting good. King Stefan and his wife eventually give birth to Aurora (who eventually grows up to be Elle Fanning) and Maleficent shows up and curses the child to fall into a deep sleep if she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel any time before the day after her sixteenth birthday, from which only a true love’s kiss can rouse her. Stefan panics, because both he and Maleficent don’t believe in such a thing and sends the girl away to a remote cottage near the forest kingdom to be raised by three fairies. Maleficent, however, follows, discovers where the baby is being kept and becomes sort of a far-distance trickster godmother to Aurora until, one day, their mutual curiosity leads to a face-to-face meeting and you can probably guess the rest.
Here’s the thing, that part of the film is great! I mean, I’m a sucker for this kind of plotline anyway (ones that focus on mother-daughter relationships just kind of get to me), but Maleficent still pulls it off with aplomb thanks mainly to Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning. Jolie looks like she’s been building to this role for her entire life and she mostly nails it. Not only does she look the part (seriously, the work made to get her to look like the title character is superb), she’s also mostly fantastic. She’s weakest in the beginning (what a surprise), but as soon as she appears at Aurora’s christening she is off to the races. When she needs to be the loud hammy villain, Jolie hits those notes excellently, equal parts dead straight and having the time of her life. When she needs to sell the growing affection she has for Aurora, she sells it totally, as note-perfect deadpan gives way to genuine warmth. The film puts the attempted curse revoking far too early in the narrative’s chronology for it to register as genuine, but Jolie still gives it her all, regardless. She’s a commanding screen presence, equally convincing when making humans tremble in fear as when she’s shrinking back into herself when surrounded by lethal iron. It’s that instance of dream casting where the performance ends up exactly as great as it sounded on paper; I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part in live-action now.
Jolie will get a lot of much deserved plaudits and praise thrown her way, but hopefully that won’t mean that Elle Fanning is left out in the cold, either. I mean, after all, it takes two to sell a maternal relationship and Fanning is more subdued than her co-star but no less great. See, Fanning has to be happy and cheerful practically all of the time, a saint in all but name, and that can often lead into precociously annoying (after all, it happened with child Maleficent at the beginning of the film). Fanning, however, finds that sweet-spot where she’s both believably nice and cheery and friendly, and not punch-ably-annoying. She’s endearing so, even though the film short-changes the whole relationship (we will get back to that, hang in there), it’s still easily understandable how Maleficent would start defrosting due to spending time with her. I really do wish that the film spent more time on this part, but Jolie and Fanning still force a section that would otherwise operate at half-strength (at best) come close to the level of most films that spend way longer on such character relationships.
Similarly recovering from a poor start is the character of King Stefan who spends the movie succumbing to his paranoia regarding Maleficent’s curse. We don’t check in with him too much, but we do so enough to both nail down both the tragic aspect of his villainy and how his paranoid delusions turn him into a horrible, selfish and often vile human being. He doesn’t just turn evil so that we can have our final setpiece, his slide into what he becomes remains rooted in character work set up beforehand which keeps it from feeling jarring (unlike certain other blockbusters that I don’t much care to mention). A nod of approval should also be thrown Sharlto Copley’s way, too. Unlike his villain turn in last year’s Elysium, he resists the urge to go full-ham and instead pitches his performance as more of a pathetic and weasely character who only got into his position through greed and whose paranoia seems to be just as much, if not more so, rooted in his own wellbeing than that of his daughter. At first I was disappointed (I actually really like Copley’s hammier turns), but the more I reflect the more I grow to like it. It’s understated, and I can dig that.
Oh, it would also be remiss of me to not mention the fairies that look after Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville). Well, I say “look after”. In Maleficent, they’re very self-absorbed and care more about the fact that they’re, direct quote, “wasting the best years of our lives” on their charge. They’re also sometimes comic relief, although that mainly comes from Maleficent messing with them than jokes about their negligence in raising Aurora (that, surprisingly, is a well they only go to once and it’s required to set up the beginning of her and Maleficent’s relationship). It’s a rather fun deconstruction, in all honesty, and it fits well with the mildly deconstructive nature of the rest of the film, too. Ditto the stuff with Prince Phillip which is short, and cribs from Frozen, but is still very much appreciated.
See, all of this stuff is good. Great, even! However, it’s also cut to within an inch of its life. There is the bare minimum of content to each of these themes and plots and scenarios which works fine for King Stefan (it checks in precisely enough times to get the message across), the fairies and Prince Phillip (whose ideas and themes benefit from the reduced screen-time as it keeps them from being beaten over the audience’s head), but is almost killer for Maleficent and Aurora. Again, it hits the bare minimum of points and scenes in order to make the emotional beats connect at least partially, and even then it’s mainly down to Jolie and Fanning to do most of that heavy lifting, but that’s it. It goes no further. For an example, it takes pretty much one scene after the two meet for Maleficent to defrost to Aurora when she’s brought to the forest kingdom. It’s that kind of speedy manoeuvring of plot pieces that makes what should be a huge, giant heartwarming ending, the kind that leaves a glow of pure joy emanating from my heart for hours on end, instead a mildly uplifting one. The power isn’t there because the time hasn’t been put in.
Instead, we spend the opening 30 minutes very, very, very awkwardly setting up Maleficent’s back-story. It’s got everything! Dreadful child actors, poor attempts at Lord Of The Rings-style fantasy battlefield action so that there’s something in the advertisements to hook the boys in with, montage after montage after montage, clunky foreshadowing, “a woman scorned” as the primary motive for the lead’s descent into darkness (although the film quickly distances itself from this after the 30 minute mark, so I’m not as bothered as I could have been), extremely clunky explanations of how [x iconic character] got [y iconic accessory] (Diaval was saved from hunters by Maleficent and is now her humble servant, if you were just dying to know)… They’re all present and they’re all correct and, dear Maker, they are so badly done and so at odds with the rest of the film. These go more for fantasy epic than the smaller scale relationship-focussed story the film pivots on after the first half-hour, and the switch between the two is equivalent to a really bad truck driver awkwardly attempting to shift gears. They’re that at odds with each other and in terms of both tone and quality.
And it sucks up so much precious time! Look, Maleficent never drags, that’s the beauty of its 96 minute length, but the film did not need to waste half-a-gorram-hour very awkwardly and painfully setting up Maleficent’s back-story, because it takes away from the central relationship that drives it! If Disney and the filmmakers wanted the film to be 96 minutes, they should have started the story at the point in which Maleficent crashes the coronation and left her back-story to be a mid-film reveal, summed up in a five minute montage. It would get the point across, we’d lose nothing because the film is that bad at the entire section as it is, and it would have left more room for development of the Maleficent/Aurora relationship. You could even catch viewers off-guard by slowly subverting the typical Maleficent and Stefan images before hitting the audience with the back-story to make the tragedy of it all sting that much more. But, no, instead it takes about 30 minutes for the film to get out of its rut and get to the bloody point, which is a third of the film wasted!
Look, Maleficent is a mess. I will not dispute that. The overly-streamlined runtime coupled with the drastically different opening third creates a film that seems to be either the product of a whole bunch of people trying to make separate films and only successfully getting on each other’s page for its final third (where it applies the Sleeping Beauty story to the universe we’ve spent the last hour in, and which is way better than that sounds), or the product of filmmakers who got bored a third of the way into their uninspired Lord of the Rings cribbing and, realising that you can’t just throw that kind of money away, decided to staple it onto the first third of a much better film, instead. You can practically see the seams at the exact minute that the film comes alive.
But when the film comes alive, it displays so much potential that it realises just enough of to be a satisfying film, but not enough to keep me from being disappointed. This should have been an excellent film; Maleficent is a whole bunch of scenes that are likely currently residing on the cutting room floor and a good editor who knows what to keep, what to toss and what to re-attach away from being a damn great film. The blueprint is there, the framework is there, say the word and it will go straight for the emotional jugular! But those opening 30 minutes are bad and they’ve stolen away the 30 minutes required to make Maleficent a great film instead of a maddeningly good one. Jolie is excellent, Fanning is nearly on that level, Copley is superb, the story and script are clearly wanting to go great places, but the sum is not greater than or equal to those parts, I’m afraid.
So, so maddeningly close.