Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Maleficent”


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Is it just me, or is this year’s summer blockbuster season incredibly front-loaded?  Not only did it get off to a ridiculously early start in April with the release of Captain America : The Winter Soldier, but it seems that, with the notable exception of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, which is slated for a July release, everything that I was interested in seeing came out prior to the Memorial Day weekend — which was, in years past, the time when Hollywood’s blockbuster onslaught usually began.

Oh well. I guess there’s still some stuff I have some sort of low-level semi-interest in hitting theaters, with Disney’s Maleficent being a prime example of what I’m talking about. I wasn’t “hyped” for it, per se, but on a rainy Saturday afternoon with nothing else going on, what the hell — it’ll do in a pinch. Anybody with a functioning neural cortex pretty much knows what they’re getting into with something like this — a purportedly “modern re-telling” of a classic fairy tale (in this case Sleeping Beauty) that’s also, perhaps paradoxically, billed as being “truer to the roots” of the story than the universally-known animated version. Maybe everything that’s old really is new again.

In any case, the pattern these kinds of thing inevitably follow was set fairly firmly by Snow White And The Huntsman a couple summers back, and with a live (well, okay, live plus lots of CGI) action version of Cinderella already in the pipeline, it looks like “modernized fairy tales” (that are, again, supposedly “closer” to the “source material”) is a full-blown trend in Tinseltown. At least until one flops spectacularly.

Maleficent is too precise, clinical, and by-the-numbers to be that first big flop, of course, as this is thoroughly audience-tested material from start to finish, and while that same uber-conservative approach definitely sucks any sort of life or individuality from the proceedings, it does ensure that Disney will almost certainly turn a healthy profit off this thing, even with a budget estimated in the neighborhood of $200 million. It is, for all intents and purposes,  a can’t-miss investment, and that’s what it plays out as.

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Which isn’t the same thing as me saying that Maleficent is actively bad — it’s just that it’s not particularly good, either. Oh, sure, Angelina Jolie is perfect in the title role (there’s already Oscar talk) and it really does feel like it’s a part she was born to play, and the CGI work is spectacular and breathtaking and jaw-dropping and all that, and yeah, Elle Fanning as Aurora ( that’s what we call her now, folks, not “Sleeping Beauty”) leads a very talented supporting case that also includes the likes of Imelda Staunton, Sharlto Copley, Juno Temple, and Brenton Thwaites, all of whom do good work, but it’s all in service to the most pedestrian, production-line cinematic engineering possible. First-time director Robert Stromberg, who hails from a CG effects background, most likely knows what he’s doing here, but he’s given so little room to maneuver that failure just simply isn’t an option. This is a film that literally could have been directed by nearly anyone with at least some sort of cinematic background and turned out okay.

And maybe that’s what bugged me about it the most : just that sort of hyper-aggressive okay-ness. Given the opportunity to completely re-set the table, the Disney execs who originated and then green-lit this idea were more than happy to just tinker around the edges and “update” things without actually changing them. We all know the story, and while we’re admittedly getting a heavily-padded version of it told from the perspective of the “bad guy,” the fact remains that at the end of the day, all we’re left with is a more expensive, glitzier take on what we’ve already seen.

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Maybe I missed a bit by just seeing this in 2-D, but let’s face it : any flick that leans upon the crutches of 3-D,Imax, and all that crap to “get the most from it” is one that’s entirely reliant upon bells and whistles — and while those bells and whistles are, no two ways about it, most impressive in this case, there’s just no substitute for a genuinely involving script, and Maleficent doesn’t have one. Mind you, it doesn’t have a bad script, either, it just — has a script. And the job of that script is to provide some sort of plausible set-up for one admittedly magnificent effects sequence after another. It’s cool and all for about a half hour, but after two full hours of Stromberg and company having to top themselves every five to ten minutes, you just end up feeling sort of worn down by events rather than invested in them.

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Still, I suspect that Maleficent is going to prove to be pretty well “review-proof” and enjoy a healthy run in theaters before going on to do equal, if not even greater, business on home video. This is a film that’s precisely engineered to do exactly what it’s supposed to and nothing less (or more). Kinda like a robot. And it’s that robotic, auto-pilot, cruise control sensation that prevents this movie from being at all memorable — for good or ill.

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