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Maleficent (2014)

Hell Hath No Faerie

Summer's almost over, and I've finally gotten around to seeing one of its biggest blockbusters. Maleficent may not have the smash-bang pedigree of Trasformers, Godzilla, or Guardians of the Galaxy, but it has been a steady box-office juggernaut for months. Now I understand why. 

Like Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent is Disney's live-action re-telling of one of its classic animated films--with an "Untold Origins" twist to make it worthwhile. Angelina Jolie stars as Maleficent, the winged faerie ruler of a magical kingdom that exists next to the realm of humankind. Fans of Sleeping Beauty know her as the Christening-crashing witch who places a curse on the king's daughter, damning her to permanent unconsciousness upon her sixteenth birthday. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton complicates things with a scorned-lover back story that makes Maleficent's actions relatable, if not entirely excusable.

There's real magic in Maleficent, and I can't recommend it highly enough to children of the 80s who've longed for the days of The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal. Special effects artist Robert Stromberg's directorial debut is a nostalgia filmmaking in the best sense: rather than copying aspects of classic films, he's captured a genuine, hard-to-define mood with his storybook fantasy. Older moviegoers may scoff at some of Maleficent's CGI subjects, but this wonkiness is in keeping with the good-for-their-time puppets of our youth.*

The main reason I waited so long to see the film was because of its ad campaign's similarity to other live-action, empowered-princess movies that've popped up in the last few years. Though I enjoyed Snow White, I couldn't stand Alice in Wonderland (also written, strangely enough, by Woolverton)--and the fighting, demon-faced trees reminded me of The Lord of the Rings (not that that's a bad thing; just more unwelcome familiarity in an alleged realm of imagination). Maleficent looked like more plodding, pixel-based whimsy, leading to an inconsequential showdown between knights and monsters.

One of this movie's many fun surprises is that Stromberg gets his big battle out of the way early. The climax is a more intimate showdown involving Maleficent, the twisted King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and a dragon--who's also sometimes a bird, and occasionally a man (Sam Riley). A revived Sleeping Beauty (the radiant Elle Fanning) is also involved, but she's mostly just a catalyst in the antihero's journey. Sure, I saw some of the story beats from several steps ahead, but the filmmakers crafted such an immersive experience that I didn't notice some very clear "tells" until after leaving the theatre.

Despite my unexpected enthusiasm for the film, I'd be remiss in not point out my crushing disappointment with its final ten minutes. I'll let slide the climactic story beat that recalls Frozen's surprise resolution (each movie was obviously developed along different timelines), and focus on one of the most rushed endings I've ever seen. Not to spoil things too much, but from the moment Maleficent bursts out of the castle with Stefan dangling precariously from a chain, it's all downhill. From a more-choppy-than-necessary bit of editing (meant to, I guess, soften a key character's demise) to the Sesame Street finale in which absolutely everyone shows up in the exact location for their goofy-smile closeup, Maleficent ends with a hurried and generically commercial air that belies most of what had come before.

But that's all adult-perspective nonsense. Any little kid that picks up on these problems is doomed to life as a film critic (and we all know there's no saving them). I'd expected Maleficent to be a disposable cash-in, starring a slumming-it Angelina Jolie. This is a real movie, though, and one I'm sure to revisit on home video--which is more than I can say for most of the tentpoles that've taken up time and space at the multiplex this summer.

*It's a moot point either way, as I'm sure the target audience in both eras accepted these dodgy monsters as completely real.

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