The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



If we're making a list of the biggest missed opportunities of the last ten years, Maleficent is definitely somewhere high up on that list. It's staggering to me that the film exists in this form. If you can get Angelina Jolie to play one of the most beloved villains in Disney history, why would you make this movie? This movie – which is so joyless and which lacks any real sense of playfulness or fun. As mediocre as 1996's live-action 101 Dalmatians was, it at least had enough smarts to afford Glenn Close the chance to chew scenery as Cruella De Vil. Jolie, meanwhile, is stuck in a picture that's somber and slow, one that forces her to mute the fiery, passionate quality that has been her stock-in-trade as an actress. It's an epic miscalculation.

The movie begins with Maleficent as a young fairy living in the Moors, a magical world that bumps up against a human kingdom. She befriends a human boy named Stefan, and they dream of ending the conflict between their species. Years later, Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) betrays her by cutting off her wings to appease his dying king and gain control of the throne. Maleficent (Jolie) gets revenge by placing a curse on his newborn daughter, so that the girl will fall into a coma on her 16th birthday, with only a “true love's kiss” able to awaken her. Stefan orders three pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) to hide the child away. They do, but Maleficent spends the intervening years subtly hanging around sweet, innocent Aurora (Elle Fanning), and feeling a little guilty about what she's done.

Let's stop right there, because this is the biggest mistake Maleficent makes. Here you've got a character well-known to anyone who's ever seen Sleeping Beauty. She personifies evil, hatred, and vengeance. She has endured in pop culture because of those qualities. So what does Maleficent do with her? Try to make her sympathetic, of course! Having Angelina Jolie portray a fiendishly nasty character sounds great; having her play a misunderstood version of that character does not. The actress is made up to look the part, and she's certainly game enough for it, but by softening Maleficent's dark heart, Jolie doesn't really have a whole lot to do. If a villain isn't being evil, what else is left?

Perhaps if the story she'd been stuck into was stronger, it wouldn't matter as much. Sadly, Maleficent's story is completely unformed. The war between fairies and humans isn't developed in any meaningful way, Aurora has little function in the film but to hang around waiting to meet her fate, and Maleficent gets zero scenes that convincingly indicate how her transformation comes to be. One almost gets the impression that nobody knew what they were doing when they planned this film. It feels like a concept – Angelina Jolie is the villain from Sleeping Beauty! - that everyone thought they could coast by on. For that reason, what we're left with is a surprisingly somber affair with a mopey central character who often seems to be wandering around the fringes of her own story. Even when it does attempt to introduce some levity, Maleficent fails miserably. The three pixies are intended as comic relief, but their Three Stooges-style antics are forced and unfunny.

For a movie aimed at children, Maleficent is very dark, very violent, and very dull. Novice director Robert Stromberg was previously the production designer on Avatar, and his visuals here crib heavily from that film, ensuring that there's not even a sense of originality in the fantasy world-building. Stromberg has no sense of pacing. He's unable to give Maleficent a pulse or any sort of vibrancy. The movie just sits up there on screen, marching lackadaisically through its paces without ever springing to life.

Jolie gets points for her willingness, and having Lana Del Rey coo “Once Upon a Dream” over the end credits was a stroke of genius. Beyond that, Maleficent is a disaster. I have a policy of reviewing the movie that was made, not the movie that wasn't made. In this case, however, it's hard to follow that rule. Angelina Jolie is perfectly capable of delivering a delightfully wicked performance. Allowing her to go full evil as a Disney villain would make for a grand time. Maleficent squanders its ace in the hole, leaving us with something substantially unsatisfying.

( 1/2 out of four)

Maleficent is rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images. (It really should be PG-13.) The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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