So begins Disney’s latest attempt to mine their rich archives and re-imagine a classic fairy tale, both of which have become big business. Alice in Wonderland scored over a billion dollars at the box office to get the ball rolling. The House of Mouse has a live-action version of Cinderella coming in 2015 along with remakes of The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast in development. Maleficent is Disney’s most radical interpretation of the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty, told from the point of view of one of their most iconic villain.
In a medieval fantasy land, there was an enchanted forest known as the Moors, which neighbored the kingdom of man. In the Moors, lived a young fairy named Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) who came across a farm boy Stefan (who eventually becomes Shalto Copley) as he attempted to steal a gem. The two grow close, but further apart as time goes on. Stefan is driven by his ambition to one day become king, a Herculean task given his station in life. Yet, he manages to worm his way into King Henry’s (Kenneth Cranham) inner circle, just as his forces suffer a debilitating loss as they attempt to conquer the Moors. The dying King decrees that the one who brings him the head of Maleficent will inherit the throne. Stefan betrays Maleficent by drugging her though he is unable to go through with it. Instead, he cuts off her wings and brings them to the King. Maleficent awakens in horror and the forest grows dark in sync with her pain and anger. Meanwhile, Stefan is crowned the new monarch, marries King Henry’s daughter, and they have a child of their own, Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Maleficent makes a grand entrance during the baby’s christening and places a curse upon her. On her 16th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep with true love’s kiss the only thing that will awaken her. King Stefan orders all spinning wheels in the land destroyed and for Aurora to live in anonymity with three fairies: Knotgrass, Flittle & Thistlewit (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville & Juno Temple).
Maleficent marks the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, a veteran visual effects artist and production designer who won Academy Awards for his work on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. Maleficent is certainly dripping with eye candy though anyone who has seen those aforementioned films, along with Oz: The Great and Powerful (another of Stromberg’s projects), will see nothing new. The enchanted forest is a glowing world of pixies, goblins, and living trees, but there’s not a lot to differentiate it from Pandora or Wonderland. The score by James Newton Howard feels just as rehashed, trying too hard to sound like the work of Danny Elfman.
Maleficent is practically a one-woman show with Angelina Jolie giving a towering performance as the title role. Makeup by Rick Baker accentuates her otherworldly beauty with pronounced cheekbones, cat-like eyes, and her trademark crown of horns. Jolie clearly has a passion for the character and relates to the movie’s themes as an adoptive mother and a woman who underwent a double mastectomy. The film positions Maleficent as a tragic figure demonized for decades by patriarchal oppression. The scene in which she loses her wings is an obvious metaphor for sexual assault, but the screenplay by Linda Woolverton (who turned Alice into a Joan of Arc-esque heroine) never fully follows through with these elements. Even at a brisk 97 minutes, the plot feels padded out. The disjointed nature could be chalked up to multiple rewrites (including uncredited work by Paul Dini) and reshoots supervised by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks). The pivotal moment when Maleficent places the curse on little Aurora stands as a highlight with Jolie really sinking her teeth into the role. The rest of Maleficent never lives up to the promise of this sequence.
The second act derails the entire movie as it focuses on Aurora being reared by the bumbling fairies. It’s not that these characters are stupid; it’s that they are Homer Simpsons stupid. They are so idiotic that there’s no possible way Darwinism hadn’t already done them in. Maleficent secretly observes them in bemusement while making sure the fairies don’t accidentally poison Baby Aurora or allow her to wander off a cliff. Disney was able to cast three splendid actresses for the parts, but have them do nothing but forced slapstick. When they aren’t slapping each other like the fairy tale Three Stooges, they’re trapped in the uncanny valley as computer generated creatures that never look quite right. The filmmakers also had the opportunity to create a complicated villain in Stefan, but chose to turn him into a one-note baddie. Stefan descends into madness and you wonder if he cares at all about his wife or daughter. He becomes a paranoid shut-in who hears voices in his head. At this point, regicide would be entirely justified. Elle Fanning as little to do as Aurora who is rendered as little more than a wide-eyed china doll. The inclusion of the dragon and Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) are simply perfunctory nods to the original animated picture.
In recent years, Disney has done a fine job in creating stronger female characters after decades of pretty princesses passively waiting for their Prince Charming. Maleficent falls in line with recent releases such as Brave, Tangled, and Frozen, but doesn’t do anything interesting with the subject matter aside from presenting a special effects extravaganza. This is the same story as seen before in Wicked, Oz, and Once Upon a Time. There was an aura of menace and mystique with the original Maleficent that disappears in the 2014 version. Darth Vader, Wolverine, and Michael Myers didn’t benefit from an origin story and neither did Maleficent.