Disney struck gold last year with Frozen, and this summer, it tried to tell another fairy tale, this time with actual actors.
While Maleficent was a commercial success, grossing three-quarters of a billion dollars, and, to date, becoming the fifth-highest moneymaker of 2014 domestically, I don’t think it captures the same magic Frozen did. And that’s not necessarily through any fault of its own.
Firstly, it didn’t have a catchy tune like “Let it Go.” But this isn’t meant to be a comparison of the two films, rather, my point is that it is significantly more difficult to tell a fairy tale through live-action than animation, and Maleficent is living proof of that.
It’s much easier to suspend disbelief with animation. You see wizards and magic and fairies and don’t think twice about it. You even expect it. And the quality of the story itself doesn’t take away from it. But in live action films, with actual actors portraying these magical characters, it takes more. Story and setting need more reinforcement. It takes more for us accept the universe. At least for adults.
And I guess that’s what makes movies like Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl that much more more impressive.
Setting isn’t the problem with Maleficent, which makes great use of CGI to give us a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing land of trees and flowers, bushes and lakes, and magical creatures. That part of the film is all positive.
It’s the story where Maleficent is lacking. Because there really isn’t much. It’s a contemporary take on “Sleeping Beauty,” with Angelina Jolie playing Maleficent, the film’s title protagonist (who is really the antagonist in the original story). Since it’s based on a classic tale, I’m assuming the writers thought that would be enough to carry the story. But it isn’t.
Kids will have no problem with it, but it’s the adults watching with them (or in my case, 27-year-olds watching it alone in their bedroom on their laptop), that will be yearning for more. It’s cliche to the core. The “good” characters are given no other rationale for their actions other than than the fact are good, and the bad character(s) are evil because it fits the story.
It’s a shame, because the acting is fine. Angelina Jolie doesn’t have to do much, her only real conversation partner is a shapeshifter of sorts who can transform into any animal (Sam Riley). But even when she isn’t speaking, she’s communicating with her eyes, and her reactions.
The film contains two different realms, the human side and the magical side, which, of course, are divided. It begins with the characters in their youth. Maleficent is first played by Isobelle Molloy. She’s a fairy, with wings and horns, and one day she befriends a human, Stefan (played by Michael Higgins), who wandered into the magical realm one day.
Time flies by quickly, and without notice. Stefan becomes older and more powerful, and is portrayed brilliantly by Sharlto Copley, who is becoming a real superstar at playing power-hungry menaces with thick accents (see: Elysium). The only real indicator of how much time passes is the emergence of Elle Fanning, who plays the innocent princess Aurora, who in this version, becomes our Sleeping Beauty.
There’s also a prince, played by Brenton Thwaites, who is seemingly in every movie this year. See my next review of The Giver for more on him.
I still can’t believe how young Elle Fannning is. She’s only 16, and I remember seeing her in Somewhere a few years ago, thinking she was almost 16 then. But anyway, her energetic presence gives the film a real and much-needed boost, which probably would have become pretty barren without her.
Anyway, let me wrap this up. Maleficent nicely portrays a magical world, and isn’t lacking in imagination. Kids will eat it up, but it doesn’t have the story to make it a real success. Simply put, it’s magic is stagnated by a lack of complexity.