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Film review: Maleficent

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★★★☆☆

Maleficent The trailer for Maleficent is fantastic. The creepy tone, the eerie Lana Del Rey-voiced rendition of the lyricised Tchaikovsky waltz 'Grande valse villageoise', the dark imagery.

The marketing materials for Maleficent suggested the film would be an edgy, radical take on the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. It isn’t. It’s a weak, cute and very childish CGI-fest with little darkness. However, the silkily menacing tones of Angelina Jolie, plus some brave moments of inspiration, manage to make this an experience to remember and stop it from becoming an awful sugary mess.

You already know how the story of Sleeping Beauty goes. Wicked fairy witch puts a curse on a baby so that before she reaches her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an everlasting sleep. Or at least until her Prince Charming wanders in to save the day and wake her with true love’s kiss. Here, however, we get a behind-the-scenes look at the fairytale to see what motivated evil witch fairy Maleficent to do something so horrible.

The exploration of Maleficent's character is interesting. However, it would have worked so much better without lots of pre-school-aimed slapstick humour involving cake baking and splashing about in magical swamps. The film is clearly trying to push against its CBeebies-style limits, though never really gets beyond them. The closest it gets to something actually upsetting is a scene where Maleficent is drugged by her lover and wakes up to find her wings have been cut off.

Whether intended or not, it’s strange to see the subject of date rape arising within a Disney movie. I’m not saying it is inappropriate (it requires an adult understanding to realised what is being evoked) but it positions the film as a beast much darker and bolder than its family-friendly constraints will allow.

Another interesting aspect is linked to the concept of ‘true love’. There is a third-act twist that subverts the traditional fairytale (and re-writes it) to a great extent. Disney purists will hate it. I, however, relished the freshness it gave the story. It demonstrates how Disney has moved on from its days of dated conservatism and occasionally unhealthy romantic worldviews.

The 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty is a masterpiece in art design and animated storytelling, but the central romance is a bit weak and watery. Maleficent adds bite and bravely channels it from an altogether different direction. But as soon as the film shows signs of finding its own tone and voice, we are dragged out of the story by scenes of jolly good fun and immature insincerity.  There is a very good film struggling to get out here. It’s a shame it’s never quite set free.

Maleficent (2014), directed by Robert Stromberg, is released in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Certificate PG.




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