Dir: Robert Stromberg
Academy Award Nomination: Costume Design.
This is possibly the most elaborate metaphor for Scottish independence ever seen… and I’m leaning towards voting ‘distinctly unsure’ about it!
From the opening this film explains that it will ‘tell an old story anew’ that of Disney’s 1959 animated classic ‘Sleeping Beauty’, but this time from the viewpoint of evil fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), making it a ‘fairytale’ in the truest sense of the word. Betrayed by her childhood love Stefan (Sharlto Copley, ‘District 9’, ‘Powers’), powerful Maleficent curses his daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) but then finds herself struggling with her changing feelings and the pending consequences of her actions as the child grows up.
It’s an interesting idea for Disney to make this, really taking the view that there are two sides to most stories, looking at what could have motivated Maleficent to curse a baby as she did. It not only changes perception of the story, but is also live-action rather than animation, and so it’s a complete change on almost every level. Angelina Jolie in the lead role is a piece of really excellent casting, with the costume and makeup she’s a very striking presence. She also employs a very British accent as do many of the characters, while Stefan and his castle guards are very Scottish. Sharlto Copley’s strong Scottish accent effectively covers up his native South African, though that’s an accent I’d love to hear him saying ‘Maleficent’ in, I imagine it sounding really great in my head.
Where the film lost me was with the CGI. I think there’s far too much reliance on digitally rendering surroundings, there was a clear lack of physically tactile settings and effects, this results in characters at times looking quite separate from their surroundings especially in some of the wider shots. Many of the special effects looked far less polished than you’d expect from such a big-budget film, which to me made it look almost cheap which is a big problem for a $180m film. This is all really strange when you factor in that the film is directed by Robert Stromberg, who is a visual effects specialist with loads of experience, but that probably explains why he leant on computerised effects so detrimentally heavily, sticking with what he knows despite it not being the best option.
Also digitally created (albeit sometimes better than the scenery) are a variety of fairytale creatures, including some huge tree people who look like Groot’s cousins. This adds magical wonder, but it didn’t work well enough for me, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough as required to get immersed in the world. Most noticeably weak was the trio of good but inept pixies who care for Aurora, played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple, who spend some of the film looking like full-sized humans and are great then, but when tiny flying creatures are completely animated (from captured likenesses) in such an odd way. Their CGI representations resemble them enough to be easily recognisable, but they’re just somewhat ‘off’, and so end up looking quite creepy.
‘Snow White and the Huntsman‘ is a good comparison to consider. That movie had dwarves who were played by recognisable actors made shorter through clever camera angles and sets, not computer animation. The settings felt like real woods, and the dark antagonist was truly menacing with a somewhat similar style to Maleficent, but far more evenly written and played. Weirdly enough both films also had actors who get their start in Australian soap opera ‘Home and Away’ in the forms of Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, and Brenton Thwaites as a young prince in this. It’s not a favourable comparison however, as that film was far better in my opinion, it knew exactly what it wanted to be tonally and then set out to achieve it, and did so quite successfully. This film has such wildly varying extremes for the eponymous villain, and expecting the audience to sympathise with her and stay on her side throughout a number of mood swings.
I know Disney love themes of redemption and to make sure Maleficent has a heart (maybe just to avoid hampering any further adoption efforts by Jolie), but it means we never really get to grips with this volatile fairy. There’s a good idea at the centre of this, a strong cast with some fine performances, but unconvincing effects and uneasily dancing between the tones of dark twisted fantasy and uplifting ‘Disney fairytale’, results in a final film that’s far below the needed standard to become the ‘classic’ that it’s an alternate version of.