The idea of Angelina Jolie playing Maleficent, one of the most iconic villains in the long and storied history of Disney, is an intriguing one: the actress has been steely enough in her other roles that taking on the fabled Mistress of All Evil from the Mouse House’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty might possibly give her the chance to direct her considerable presence into something darker and more primal. And telling the story from her point of view would perhaps be a clever way to update the tale for more sophisicated audiences.
Unfortunately, Maleficent the movie is not just a crashing bore, but it’s a perfect example of filmmaking by corporate mandate: it’s a sort of prequel to the original film, yet it retells that story in lackadaisical fashion and adds a “twist” that is supposed to make it more about female empowerment and the power of motherly love, or something like that. Sadly that’s offset by the flashback portions, in which the actions of a man that amount to a symbolic date rape turn Maleficent into the evil figure we all know – until she’s not.
Does that make sense? I didn’t think so, but I’m not even going to try to rewrite it – it’s a perfect representation of just how misguided and incoherent Maleficent is. The movie opens with a much nicer and littler Maleficent enjoying life in the fairy kingdom known as the Moors, until she meets and falls for a young man named Stefan from the human kingdom next door. They grow up to be Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley, and while the adult Maleficent misses her friend as he visits less and less often, he is busy trying to figure out how to become ruler of his land.
He gets his chance when the sitting king decides he wants to invade the Moors. A human army descends on the fairy domain, but is soundly defeated by Maleficent leading a horde of Ents and Nephilim from The Lord of the Rings and Noah, who at least get some work out of this. The king, naturally, wants Maleficent dead. Stefan sees his chance – and while he doesn’t kill his former girlfriend, he betrays and cripples her in such a brutal fashion that she immediately turns evil (because that’s what women do after they’re violated, the film seems to say).
Some time later, the now-King Stefan and his queen have a baby daughter named Aurora, but a black leather-clad Maleficent shows up at the celebration to bestow the curse from the original story: before her 16th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into an eternal sleep. That scene, at least, has some energy, and Angelina/Maleficent looks pretty cool in her fairy biker outfit with green fire all around her. To keep her safe so that she doesn’t fall prey to the spell, the King sends Aurora to live in an isolated country house with three fairies who are just incompetent enough to put her life in danger several times.
Aurora grows up into Elle Fanning and Maleficent inexplicably decides she wants to watch over her and introduce her to the Moors and show her a good time there. The middle portion of the film is incredibly static, starting off with shots of Maleficent and her henchcrow – who turns into Sam Riley on occasion – walking through the woods with a sleeping Aurora drifting behind them (I don’t know why Aurora had to go to sleep here, but she’s unconscious during this part of the film longer than she’s unconscious during the actual “Sleeping Beauty” part).
It’s true: when Aurora eventually does fall under the spell and slip into sleep, it barely seems like 10 minutes passes before she wakes up again – and not thanks to the kiss of a prince (there is one, but he’s an ineffectual mannequin who’s barely in the movie). No, instead, Maleficent turns out to be a redemption story – because somehow we just can’t have tales anymore where evil just happens for the sake of being evil.
All of this is set in a landscape that looks like the pre-vis team opened up the files for Pandora and Oz and somehow merged them together on the desktop. First-time director Robert Stromberg, a production designer himself who won Oscars for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, proves reasonably adept at handling the visuals but can’t do a thing with the actors, although it’s hard to say if that’s completely his fault. Sharlto Copley glowers and rages as the one-note Stefan, while Elle Fanning over-emotes ferociously with her similarly underwritten role. The three fairies – played by Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, and Imelda Staunton, who all deserve better – are incredibly irritating and seem to have come in from another movie entirely.
And then there’s Angelina, who doesn’t have a whole lot of lines, but does get a whole lot of close-ups – distractingly so, in fact. The problem is that she seems to think that she can act the part with a total of two expressions, an icy stare and a self-satisfied smile. There are moments when she’s posed and lit in a way that makes her Maleficent a truly striking figure – but that’s all there is to her performance, a series of poses and glances that seem detached from everything else around her.
By the time we get to the inevitable dragon and climactic battle scene, exhaustion has set in. Maleficent has nothing to say (although it thinks it does), does not have a narrative that flows in a coherent and logical style, and simply smashes together parts of other fantasy movies in an effort to make a generic crowd-pleaser instead of something truly inventive or radical. Just like the hideous Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, there is no reason for this movie to exist – although if you need help getting to sleep, it might get the job done.