Maleficent: A Failed Trailblazer

“Maleficent” could have been a revolutionary lioness of a film. Instead, it’s a defanged (but gorgeous!) kitten.

“Maleficent,” if you haven’t been paying attention to Disney’s big media push, centers on Angelina Jolie as the wickedly fierce – and fiercely wicked – evil fairy from the 1959 classic cartoon, Sleeping Beauty. It boasts an impressive tertiary cast as well – Elle Fanning, Imelda Staunton, Sharlto Copley, Juno Temple – and a world-class visual design, costuming and makeup pedigree.

It’s at this point in the credits where things start going off the rails.

The movie’s script writer is Linda Woolverton, of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” fame. More distressing, the movie’s director is Robert Stromberg, a two-time Oscar winner – for visual design. This marks his first venture behind the camera.

Pardon me, but when was the last time you heard of a movie with a $175 million budget being helmed by a first-time director? Even notorious flops like “The Lone Ranger,” “John Carter” and “Green Lantern” were helmed by directors who had relatively extensive experience bringing expensive movies to life.

Looking at the pedigree behind “Maleficent”, it feels more than a little out of the ordinary that Disney would entrust such an expensive project to a production team unsuited to the project.

Hear me out. Linda Woolverton was the mastermind behind “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” movies I loved as a child. But, for a revisionist version of a fairy tale, such a writer (who had to incorporate songs and humor into her scripts) may not be the best suited for a project like this. Why not go with someone like Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility” and “Nanny McPhee”), Deborah Moggach (Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice”), or Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and  “Memoirs of a Geisha”)?

And don’t even get me started on the choice for director for this film. There’s nothing wrong with giving someone his first big break, but I can’t help envisioning how this film would have benefited by being guided by Michelle MacLaren (multiple “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” episodes), Sam Mendes (“Skyfall”), David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” [both films]), or Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “Mona Lisa Smile”).

Sadly, after researching the team behind the movie (and then seeing the movie for myself), I could come to only one logical conclusion: Disney saw this as merely an opportunity for extensive merchandising that pays the real bills. Forgive me for saying this, but I think this is completely and utterly absurd. Putting aside the significant politics at work, why on God’s green earth would you spend $200 million on a production without using some of that budget to put together a powerful team capable of creating quality work?

It’s weird to say this, but I think this is the most damning piece of evidence: “Maleficent” clocks in at 97 minutes, considered brisk for a Hollywood blockbuster of this magnitude. Indeed, when was the last time you heard of a big budget movie that lasted less than two hours? It reeks of poor choices behind the scenes. Angelina Jolie’s performance deserved better.

But more than that, “Maleficent” could have been a sincere harbinger for Hollywood to begin taking female-driven action movies more seriously. For all the talk people make about superhero movies, Wonder Woman still hasn’t gotten her own movie, Susan Storm of the Fantastic Four is continually reduced to a love interest in the movie adaptations, Brett Ratner royally fucked up the “Dark Phoenix” storyline from the X-Men movies, and don’t even get me started on why no one has cast Lupita Nyong’o in an “X-Men Origins: Storm” movie.

The sad news is, until Hollywood starts taking movies like this seriously (as in, giving their scripts and creative direction the kind of consideration they give to male-driven pictures), they’ll never discover the true potential lying in wait. Sure, giving a $200 million budget to one seems like a good start, but a movie can only be as good as the talent behind it. How can it succeed if the deck is stacked so firmly against its favor?

On the surface, Disney seems to be correcting this trend with its upcoming adaptations of its fairy tales. “Cinderella” is being helmed by Kenneth Branagh (“Thor” and several Shakespeare adaptations), was written by Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada” and the latest iteration of “Annie”) and Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”). Its cast is similarly impressive (Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter, and…well, really, who cares after those two). Meanwhile, they’ve begun adapting “The Little Mermaid” with Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette” and “The Virgin Suicides”) as director.

Sadly, these two movies aren’t indicative of what Hollywood really needs to do: they’re going to be relatively straightforward adaptations of cartoon movies, with a princess who is rescued by (or falls in love with) a prince. Not exactly the stuff that passes the Bechdel test, is it?

This morning I read an interesting piece on Variety that pointed to three important female-driven movies this summer: “Maleficent,” “Edge of Tomorrow” (a Tom Cruise vehicle featuring Emily Blunt prominently), and Shailene Woodley in “The Fault in Our Stars.” The piece’s thesis was that these three roles are breaking up the “boys club” that is Hollywood’s summer season.

I cry bullshit.

“Edge of Tomorrow” comes closest to creating a strong female protagonist, but it’s still a Tom Cruise vehicle. Emily Blunt’s kickass mentor figure isn’t relegated to the sidelines, but she’s a strong supporting character in a film centered on a male protagonist learning how to become a strong warrior and save the world. Stereotypical masculinity, wartime setting, alien invasion, hardly the stuff of reinventing the action wheel.

“The Fault in Our Stars,” while certainly not a cookie-cutter bildungsroman, doesn’t come close to providing the type of media dominance we’ve seen from the Marvel juggernaut. Nor does it thematically differ enough from female-driven movies to provide any reason to consider it on the same level as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” or “Man of Steel.”

“Maleficent” could have been different. In the right hands, it could have challenged assumptions about female-driven movies and their ability to draw in crowds. Instead, it’s a big, bombastic, less-than-impressive impetus to sell merchandise. And that’s just a waste of a bunch of money and talent.

I’ll be writing later about how the movie could have been improved, with specific screenplay suggestions. In the meantime, I hope this post provides a little food for thought.

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