Maleficent is one of the strangest films in the Disney canon, both garish and grotesque in its flippantly commercial use of deformed creatures, assaulted women, and a Lana Del Rey cover of “Once Upon a Dream.” For a PG live-action feature adapted from one of the Mouse House’s most popular animated features, director Robert Stromberg is predictably geared toward aligning his film, in part, with recent fairy tales turned battle epics, most notably the dreadful, inert Snow White and the Huntsman. An early sequence with a winged Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) fighting an army of men on horseback is warmed-over LOTR bollocks, with a bloodless, faceless clanging of swords and bearded growls that suggest Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton are content to wallow in a revisionist tale that’s only revising the latest blockbuster trends.
However, after the film’s painful first act, and following Maleficent’s de-winging by the treacherous would-be-king Stefan (Sharlto Copley), Stromberg tones down the bombast and homes in on Jolie’s face, in a series of finely lit sequences and close-ups seemingly designed to more abstractly highlight Maleficent’s anguished isolation. In fact, the dedication to these oscillating scenes of light and dark, and the various facets of Maleficent that Jolie’s facial expressions reveal, start to resemble Josef von Sternberg’s exuberant attention to mise-en-scène and Marlene Dietrich’s face in The Scarlet Empress. At least, these similarities come in flashes, like when Maleficent hides from Aurora (Elle Fanning) behind a tree in a neon-lit forest, with only her eyes noticeably visible. Recall the scene from The Scarlet Empress where Dietrich flees to a forest, her face shrouded in darkness, the woods haunted with fog, and a nameless soldier propositions her. Maleficent necessarily lacks the sexual explicitness and, thus, ceases to be very provocative or engaging, but Stromberg operates with these visual goals in mind, putting the film’s rather dreary narrative aside to engage the on-screen palette.
Even calling Maleficent “Stromberg’s film” seems inadequate and done out of allegiance to the norms of cinematic discourse. The film is quite clearly Jolie’s, meaning that every decision made within the film, down to Maleficent’s eyes peering through a gold-plated bed frame, or a canted angle to accompany her intent to place a curse on a baby, are done with the actress’s presence in mind. Stromberg becomes a facilitator, angling to frame Jolie in a variety of ways, such that the film resembles a fairy-tale fashion shoot rather than a convincing or meaningful re-casting of a beloved myth. If Godard viewed Vivre Sa Vie as a series of tableaux’s on how to film a conversation, then Maleficent is as equally dedicated to a series of scenes on how to film Jolie in a variety of lighting set-ups and close shots.
These components make Maleficent curious and interesting, but only with disregard to the film’s narrative events. Woolverton’s script is basely dedicated to explaining Maleficent’s vengeance as tied to having been drugged and metaphorically raped by a man in power. As an idea for Maleficent’s backstory, it’s retrograde, and given the must-be-PG confines, Woolverton, Jolie, and Stromberg have no space to explore these implications, much less speak the terms. In turn, the entirely of Maleficent, when not on Jolie, is indeed the slog of a familiar, contemporary sort, with dragons and another fight sequence as the film’s denouement, which subsequently sees all of the parties involved come to cheery resolutions—well, except for Stefan, who falls to his death after a mid-air tussle with Maleficent, yet another of the film’s many bloodless, should-be-violent-but-isn’t renderings. Aurora takes the crown, but Jolie rules this queendom.
Disney has given Maleficent a red-carpet audio-visual treatment, such that every dollar of the film’s $180 million budget gleams and shines with the appropriate sheen. Although potentially damaging to your sight, the entirely CGI world of the film’s opening is incredibly detailed on this Blu-ray, with each blade of grass easily discerned. More excitingly, Angelina Jolie’s close-ups look incredible, with contrast proficiently configured to maintain Robert Stromberg’s impressive play with light and dark throughout. The battle sequences pump the bass, while Maleficent’s wings whoosh and swirl with equal verve. James Newton Howard’s so-so score is featured prominently, but doesn’t overwhelm quieter dialogue scenes between Aurora and Maleficent.
Pretty sparse and requisite, as five brief featurettes, totaling just over 25 minutes, explain some of the decisions to give Maleficent a backstory and not step on the toes of the animated film’s devoted audience. This includes segments on both the casting of Jolie and Elle Fanning, with producer Joe Roth and Stromberg both speaking briefly about the decisions. Linda Woolverton speaks about her enthusiasm for writing the script, but uses questionable phrases to describe Maleficent, like "fierce woman" and "cool and evil," which may help explain why the film’s revisionism operates on about the same level. Finally, there are a handful of deleted scenes (that stayed thankfully deleted), which flesh out some of the film’s soporific exposition a bit more.
There’s a fascinating video essay waiting to be made on the use of Angelina Jolie’s face throughout Maleficent, but unfortunately, the rest of the film is a CGI sleeping pill, though gorgeously rendered on Disney’s Blu-ray release.