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"MALEFICENT"
(2014) (Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Fantasy: A vindictive fairy curses a newborn princess to get back at her king father, only to have second thoughts once she comes to know and like the girl as she grows up.
PLOT:
In a faraway land, two kingdoms are diametrically opposed. One is populated with humans ruled by King Henry (KENNETH CRANHAM) who wishes to destroy the other, a place filled with magical and mystical creatures that have no central ruler.

One day, a human boy, Stefan (MICHAEL HIGGINS), is caught stealing a gem from the neighboring kingdom. But rather than punish him, young fairy Maleficent (ISOBELLE MOLLOY) befriends him. As the two grow up into teenagers, their friendship turns to love. But as time marches on, they eventually go their separate ways, with Stefan (SHARLTO COPLEY) desirous of replacing the ill King Henry, while Maleficent (ANGELINA JOLIE) oversees her land as its protector.

She and Stefan are eventually reunited, but in an act of treachery, he renders her unconscious and cuts off her wings, all to prove his worthiness for the throne. Now unable to fly, the increasingly vindictive Maleficent plots her revenge and gets that upon the birth of King Stefan's first child, Aurora.

Maleficent puts a curse on the girl in that on her 16th birthday she'll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and forever be cursed to eternal sleep. The only possible salvation is an act of true love, something Maleficent no longer believes in.

Nor does the king, and thus he sends his infant daughter off to live in secret with three small fairies, Flittle (LESLEY MANVILLE), Knotgrass (IMELDA STAUNTON) and Thistlewit (JUNO TEMPLE), who've refashioned themselves as her full-sized doting aunts. But Maleficent has a spy among them in Diaval (SAM RILEY), a black crow who can turn into the form of a human to let the fairy know about Aurora (ELLE FANNING) who's now grown into an adventurous teen.

The latter ends up meeting Maleficent and mistakes her for her fairy godmother, with that relationship eventually softening the fairy's hard edge and spite. With time counting down to the girl's pivotal 16th birthday, her future lies in the balance. Could the visiting Prince Phillip (BRENTON THWAITES) be the only person who might be able to save her from eternal sleep?

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Young or at least novice screenwriters will often make any number of mistakes in their scripts. That can range from too many clichés, lifting/copying scenes from other films, flat dialogue, and storylines that go next to nowhere once the premise has been established. The one I see quite often, however, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, is that the rules of a created universe are either not set or are broken along the way.

For an example of one that does work, in "Star Wars," we learn about "the force" and see Luke struggle to figure out how to master it. We also realize that while it's powerful, it has its limitations. Had Luke or his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, simply used that power to destroy the Death Star with just a wave of the hand, we would have felt cheated and the moment would have come off as incongruous with the parameters of what had already been set up.

In "Superman," the Man of Steel operates from guidelines and philosophies imparted upon him by his father (and thus isn't off changing the world willy-nilly), while pieces of his former home planet serve as devices that can render his great powers useless should he come into contact with them. While the people of Metropolis must be the most oblivious folks on the planet for not visually realizing Clark Kent is Superman, at least the rules of that story's universe are set. We understand them, and since they're followed, everything is hunky-dory.

Watching "Maleficent," the prequel of sorts to the much beloved "Sleeping Beauty" fairytale, I fully figured that the screenwriter must have been a novice who hadn't followed that golden rule. After all, while the title character does have her own metal-based version of kryptonite that could render her powerless, other head-scratching moments elicited far too many "why didn't she just use her magical powers to..?" moments that constantly kept taking me out of the story. Coupled with hurried yet also limp pacing, the film simply feels flat for much of its 97 runtime rather than special, magical and captivating like its animated predecessor from nearly a half-century earlier.

To my surprise, it's not the screenwriter who was new in her role. As it turns out, Linda Woolverton is an industry veteran with notable hits such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" on her resume. Instead, it's the director, Robert Stromberg, who's making his debut behind the camera after previously handling the special effects for the likes of "Avatar" and "Oz the Great and Powerful."

Who knows where things went amiss in terms of the storytelling (the original script, the new director modifying that, or later studio intervention and changes), but the super expensive film (with a reported budget of $175 million) that reportedly needed numerous reshoots simply doesn't establish its universal rules and then follow them.

The underlying story is fairly simple. In a faraway world where separate kingdoms of humans and magical creatures don't interact, two personalities from each -- the human Stefan and the fairy Maleficent -- eventually do, as children. They become friends and then something more, but then grow apart (in one of the film's more gaping moments of missing information barely touched upon by the film's occasional narrator). He (played by Sharlto Copley as an adult) eventually betrays her (Angelina Jolie) and cuts off her wings, all to lessen her power and put him in line to succeed his dying king.

The maimed fairy then bides her time while growing increasingly vindictive and eventually puts a curse on the man's newborn daughter. Come her 16th birthday, she'll fall into an eternal sleep from which only an act of true love can save her. That's all fine and dandy and certainly ties in with the well-known plot element of its animated predecessor. But there's never any explanation why the title character -- who can put people in trances, send others flying through the air and turn a crow-man into a huge, fire-breathing dragon, among other things -- doesn't use her powers to simply get rid of the troublesome humans once and for all, especially since they occasionally show up ready to engage in murderous battle with her and her kind.

A few plot tweaks here and there would have remedied that problem, but her act of revenge feels, well, fairly lame all things considered. In fact, I would have positioned the pivotal moment where the title character loses her wings far earlier in the story, right around the time of her 16th birthday and her first kiss from her childhood friend turned boyfriend.

His actions could have stemmed from being mislead that the only way to save her from death would be to remove her from being a threat to the then current king, and thus he's had to lead this life of shame, including being forced into being king due to his actions, all against his will. At the same time, the act could have been symbolic of Maleficent losing her innocence to the hands of men and thus she grew up hating them and plotting her intended act of revenge (which would then tie in thematically to what occurred to her on her 16th birthday).

As it stands, there's a huge gap in the story between the first kiss at sixteen and then showing that character in Angelina Jolie mode, many, many years later, with a believable/credible motivation for Stefan's actions clearly lacking. Throw in a decidedly episodic nature, an uneven tone at times, and the fact that much of what transpires is boring (when not occasionally dipping into big battle scene mode inspired by the likes of what the "Lord of the Rings" flicks set off years ago), and the film comes off as a misfire.

It might look nice and -- character depth and other storytelling deficiencies notwithstanding -- Jolie is near pitch perfect in the role, yet I kept thinking what someone like Guillermo del Toro would have done with this pic as writer and/or director. After all, he delivered what could be the ultimate fairy tale flick, "Pan's Labyrinth," that makes this offering look flatter than old-fashioned, 2D, hand drawn animation. That film was amazing to behold and brilliantly played by the rules of its universe. "Maleficent" doesn't, and mired with other troubles, it simply feels like a studio offering cursed to make you fall asleep. Accordingly, the film rates as just a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed May 28, 2014 / Posted May 30, 2014


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