“Maleficent” Movie Review

     Disney’s “Maleficent” is a live action retelling of the classic “Sleeping Beauty” story, produced in similar fashion to 2012’s “Snow White” based films “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Mirror Mirror”.  At the helm is first time feature director Robert Stromberg, an Oscar winning Production Designer (“Alice in Wonderland” and “Avatar”) and a veteran visual effects supervisor.  When we talk about a film like “Avatar”, we are talking about one of the truly great film works of our time and the reason is simple.  Since 2009, the influence “Avatar” has had on the way films look, how they are made, and how they are conceptualized is seen in any number of films from the aforementioned “Alice in Wonderland” to last year’s “Oz the Great and Powerful.”  Filmmakers have been inspired to create from scratch new worlds and environments, complete with their own ecosystems, plant life, and wild life.  In some cases, these filmmakers have stopped at that inspiration and moved on with their own original material.  Stromberg, unfortunately, chose not to, instead recreating nearly the same environments for “Maleficent” with a world that is unmistakably Pandora all over again.

     From the opening scene when we are presented with a world full of familiar sights, the tall slender mountains, the lush green trees and plants populated by all sorts of interesting creatures, you immediately realize the filmmakers have taken series liberties with someone else's copyrighted material.  As the title character, Angelina Jolie is a winged fairy who sports twisting horns on the top of her head and oversees the area in which she and a number of non human characters live called the Moors, ensuring no humans set foot within their realm.  Humans, she says, are not to be trusted and when one ventures into their real estate, they are met by Maleficent and an army of CGI creatures ranging from smaller fairies to an intimidating group of tree like characters who happen to ride on a four legged animal very similar to the ones in “Avatar”.

     Not far from the Moors is the castle of King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), who intends on taking over their peaceful land and is prepared to do so by force.  In one such battle, Maleficent leads an army of these tree like creatures against King Henry’s army and successfully forces them into retreat, while also mortally wounding the King.  One of the King’s men, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) has had a long standing relationship with Maleficent going back to when both of them were children.  When Stefan uses his  past relationship to gain Maleficent’s trust, he uses the opportunity to avenge the King’s death in a way that is truly evil and unforgivable, thereby being appointed successor to the throne.

     Now the King, Stefan marries and the couple have their first child.  During a christening ceremony for their daughter, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), Maleficent appears uninvited and curses the child.  As the story goes, Aurora will grow in grace and beauty; however, when the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into an eternal sleep.  Maleficent tells the horrified King and Queen that the curse can by broken only by true love’s kiss.

     I really liked Sharlto Copley in both “District 9” and “The A-Team” where he played characters whose attributes were greatly enhanced by his quirky delivery and oddball mannerisms.  In last year’s “Elysium”, he was cast as a tough guy rogue agent and was part of a climactic hand to hand fight sequence with Matt Damon.  He was clearly out of his element.  The same goes here, as the role of Stefan requires the rage of a man whose daughter has been cursed and the down and dirty tactics used by people living in medieval times.  Copley isn’t the kind of actor who can deliver this type of performance as he is neither menacing enough or a larger than life actor who can convincingly occupy the crown of a King.

     The opening scenes that reminded me so much of “Avatar” seemed forgivable as the story moved on and into the second act.  This was until the now 15 year old Aurora meets Maleficent for the first time.  Stromberg stages this scene during the night in which the trees and rivers seemingly light up in an array of pinks and purples cast against the blackness of night.  Just like that, I was back on Pandora again, which only made me think back to the scene in “Avatar” this was reminding of, rather than focusing on the dialogue between Aurora and Maleficent.  I would contend all of this is completely unnecessary since there are many filmmakers, Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Jackson come to mind, who regularly churn out these types of films without borrowing design elements from other people’s work.  Jolies performance as Maleficent is admirable, but the film seems like more of a blatant cash grab than something developed with originality in mind.