Thundering into cinemas this week is the latest in a recent trend of live-action ‘reimagined’ fairy-tales that come brimming with CGI and apparently seek to emulate Lord Of The Rings -type battle scenes, replete with armour and medieval weaponry (see Hansel & Gretel or Snow White and The Huntsmen).
Maleficent has many things going for it – primarily Jolie, whose striking, unearthly features are perfectly cast and beyond that, a beloved narrative base upon which to build and, consequently, a ready-made audience.
The VFX and animation are of course first rate, yet all of these elements struggle to cohere, failing to settle into an aesthetic and dramatic uniformity.
When we first meet Maleficent, the memorable embodiment of feminine evil from Disney’s animated feature Sleeping Beauty (1959), she is not yet the menace we expect.
In fact, she’s been retconned as a sweet-faced fairy, all wide-eyed and full of curiosity.
She was, in her formative years, also the proud owner of a pair of feathered wings that enabled her to soar over her domain and create a sonic boom to strike fear into the hearts of men.
Before such measures became necessary however, there came a young prince who had strayed from the world of men into that of the fairies and thus alerted Maleficent of his presence.
Kings vs fairies
Maleficent and the prince become fast friends and predictably fall in love. His royal duties come between the pair, but they never forget each other.
Years later, when the boy’s father, the king of men, attempts an invasion of the fairies domain, Maleficent successfully defends her home but makes herself the king’s sworn enemy.
The king then promises that the man who slays this fairy shall become his heir. The prince finds himself in an impossible situation, suddenly having to compete for his rightful place on the throne.
Without alluding to the outcome of this first narrative pinch, it is, of course, that same prince who later becomes king and fathers a daughter – Aurora, known to us as Sleeping Beauty.
Trying to do too much
Jolie’s physical appearance, of near-preternatural refinement is often tempered by an air of femme fatale, and this qualifies her ten-fold for this kind of role – it’s hard to think of anyone capable of filling her shoes.
Less strong is her voice-work. Her menacing RP English is convincing enough, but it differs distractedly from scene to scene.
There’s also something inconsistent about that lithe, graceful, malevolent presence from Sleeping Beauty suddenly yelling war-cries (‘ye shall not pass!’ etc) at the armies of men – the tone seems off.
Similarly her spells are often bellowed. Shouldn’t the breathy menace simply purr and be heard by all?
There’s certainly enjoyment to be derived from the way our expectations of this familiar tale are constantly bested by a new perspective on this old icon.
Sadly though, by the time the credits roll, we’re left with a frustrating sense of what might have been: a likely stellar story pitch and a potentially timeless central performance have both been thwarted by clumsy, uninspired direction (of actors in particular) and a lacklustre script, full of yawning holes.
Dir: Robert Stromberg
US, Fantasy, 2014, 97 mins
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Sam Riley
Premiered May 29