Studying “Maleficent”

Maleficent is my latest favorite mediocre movie. Take Angelia Jolie out of the starring role and there would be little reason for people to watch it. Angelina Jolie does an excellent job portraying the lead character, but the rest of the actors could be completely interchangeable and nobody would know the difference.

So what makes “Maleficent” so mediocre? Let’s start with the lack of goals. Only Maleficent seems to have any goal while everyone else just seems to be standing around doing nothing. What does Sleeping Beauty want out of life? Nothing much it turns out, so her lack of a goal weakens the overall story because she serves no purpose.

What do the three fairies want who raise Sleeping Beauty in the forest alone? Not much. They just exist to advance the plot. What does the king and queen want? Other than to take over the land ruled by Maleficent, not much. In a great movie, the hero has a goal and all the secondary characters have similar goals so they all change through the actions of the hero. In “Maleficent,” only the hero changes while everyone else seems to be the same person they were at the beginning as they are at the end.

Is Sleeping Beauty a better person at the end for having helped Maleficent? Not really. She still seems to be the same person. Are the fairies who protected Sleeping Beauty in the forest all those years changed at the end? Not really. They still seem like bickering friends among themselves. With the lack of any sort of change among the secondary characters, the change of the hero seems far weaker and less engaging.

One flaw of “Maleficent” is the beginning where we learn who Maleficent is, but as a young girl. That immediately helps us bond to the young version of the hero. Then Angelina Jolie shows up as the older version of that same person. Suddenly we’re expected to shift our attention from a little girl to Angelina Jolie who now seems like a stranger. As a result of this drastic shift of character, we’ve lost any chance of initially bonding with Angelina Jolie.

Think of “There’s Something About Mary” where we see the hero playing a younger version of himself. Then when he’s older, he’s still the same person so as an audience, we’ve bonded to Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. In “Maleficent,” we initially bond with a young girl and boy who we never see again because Angelina Jolie shows up so it’s like meeting a new character for the first time about ten minutes into the film.

One supposedly emotional scene in “Maleficent” occurs when the villain cuts off Maleficent’s wings. This is supposed to represent an emotional blow to the hero, but because we don’t really feel emotionally invested in her wings, it’s far less engaging. By watching Angelina Jolie fly around, we’re supposed to feel emotionally involved when she loses her wings. That’s like watching a mother and son walking around and feeling emotionally involved when the son gets kidnapped and separated from the mother. It’s okay, but it could be stronger.

Here’s how I’d fix the beginning of “Maleficent.” First, show Angelina Jolie (not another actress) portraying the younger version of herself, such as a teenager. That helps us bond to Angelina Jolie and not to the other girl instead. Second, don’t just show Angelina Jolie flying around enjoying her wings. Show us what those wings mean to her by having her do something besides flying aimlessly around just to show off the fancy computer special effects.

For example, her wings can represent her freedom, so have her use her wings to escape from a scary situation of some kind. Now we can see that her wings represent freedom and their loss means much more to her. Once we know what her wings mean to her, losing them will make us remember our own times when we’ve lost something valuable such as a toy or a person. Then that moment of loss will feel far more emotionally charged than simply watching Angelina Jolie cry. Nobody in the audience has ever lost their wings so we don’t know what that experience feels like. That’s why “Maleficent” should have showed us what those wings mean by relating it to something audiences can understand such as loving a pet, a favorite blanket or toy, or loving a person and suddenly losing it.

Audiences can relate to losing something they love. Audiences can’t relate to losing wings unless we understand emotionally what those wings really mean.

Imagine “Maleficent” without Angelina Jolie and it would have sunk out of sight in a hurry. Angelina Jolie saved that movie but it’s still a mediocre movie despite her presence. That’s not her fault, but the fault of the story structure behind the film. “Maleficent,” like most movies, could have been great, but instead settled for mediocrity. Ignore the box office results. It’s still not a great movie in the end.

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