With Peter Jackson’s cinematic adventures in Middle-earth coming to an end this month it is quite easy to forget how much of an effect those films have had on cinema. Not only have they changed how films are created, but they have (with the help of the Harry Potter franchise) also launched a resurgence in film of the fantasy genre. The latest film to continue this legacy also happens to be one of the biggest hits of the year in Maleficent. Unfortunately, Maleficent finds itself falling into the same problems that many of the successors to The Lord of the Rings have fallen into. Maleficent sacrifices character building for shiny visuals and features world building (a strength that even the lesser The Hobbit films can latch onto) that is too derivative.
Maleficent is a re-telling of Sleeping Beauty from the vantage point of the story’s villain, Maleficent (portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the character’s adult years). As the leader of a community of magical beings in a forest she must maintain an uneasy peace with the neighboring kingdom of men. When a future king (Sharlto Copley) betrays Maleficent, she seeks revenge by placing a curse on the king’s daughter. As the year’s pass Maleficent ends up befriending the king’s daughter (Elle Fanning) and discovers just how terrible revenge can be.
The film is directed by Robert Stromberg, a visual effects and production design artist making his directorial debut. Having won multiple Oscars for his work on creating worlds within films you would think Maleficent would offer an interesting take visually on the fantasy genre. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case as almost every visual seems to be stripped from a different, and in most cases better, fantasy film. This isn’t exactly as bad as when shields and other props from Snow White and the Huntsman displayed the iconic White Tree of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings films, but no one would describe any of the visuals on display here as fresh.
A much fresher visual look would have helped a lot because it isn’t as if the story is anything special. In fact, the story presented only cares in plot as it goes from point A to B without much in the way of character development. That is a shame because there were some interesting character dynamics that could have been exploited, and it ultimately spoils a good performance from Angelina Jolie. Jolie clearly relished the opportunity to play Maleficent, and she gives a campy and fully in command performance that a better version of this film deserves. Unfortunately, a lot of the impact of the performance is blunted due to the fact that the character she plays is written so bluntly.
Maleficent is a derivative fantasy film that almost shines through thanks to Angelina Jolie and the rest of the film’s cast.