There was undoubtedly something inspired about casting Angelina Jolie as the classic Disney villainess Maleficent. In the few scenes in which the actress revels in evil, the film works as promised. Unfortunately, most of the movie is wasted as another tepid Disney fantasy adventure reboot.
In hindsight, that was probably to be expected. Though the prospect of telling a classic Disney fairy tale from the perspective of the villain offers up some delicious possibilities for harsh and unconventional fare, this is still a Disney product. The company remains a delightful children’s fantasy factory – not exactly a studio known for dark, morally ambiguous tales or movies that have fun with bad behavior. Nope, Disney makes candy colored feel-good fairy tales. While there’s nothing wrong with that as a general rule, to turn an iconic evil queen into a spurned fairy with a warm heart hidden beneath her nasty exterior feels like a wasted opportunity.
When we meet Maleficent, she’s a pink-lipped fairy who loves all creatures in the world, especially those of the cutie pie talking animal variety. One day, a boy wanders in from the human world and they fall in love. Unfortunately, that boy is a prince due to be king, and his father doesn’t take too kindly to the fantasy world that Maleficent represents. So, when the boy becomes a man (and in turn becomes Sharlto Copley), he chops off Maleficent’s wings to prove that he’s worthy of the throne. He gets his wish, but Maleficent is destroyed and builds a wall of living thorns to separate the humans from her fantasy kingdom. Then when she learns that the king has a new infant daughter, Jolie takes on the iconic costume (minus the green skin, sadly) and shows up to deliver the classic curse involving a spinning wheel, eternal sleep and true love’s kiss. She does so as a spurned lover with a heart of gold, though, not the evil queen we know. When this Sleeping Beauty is sent to live in the forest with fairies, Maleficent watches over her. When she turns into a 16-year-old Elle Fanning, Jolie’s queen even ends up liking her and tries to stop the curse.
This is a very different version of Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, one that not only shifts perspective, but turns into a mildly feminist take on the story. That’s all fine, even clever. The problem is that the movie as written by Linda Voolverton and directed by Robert Stomberg feels depressingly generic. This is another of those classic fairy tale romps reinvented as a tame fantasy adventure for a post-‘Lord of the Rings’ audience – just like Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Sam Raimi’s ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’. And just like both of those disappointing blockbusters, all of the charming idiosyncrasies and quirks that made the original stories so memorable have been bleached away.
At least this time, no one at Disney forced a cult filmmaker to sublimate his voice in favor of the final product. The studio instead hired longtime visual effects supervisor Robert Stromberg to make ‘Maleficent’ as a first feature without any fear of the director trying to impose such pesky concerns as an original voice, personal style or thematic intent onto the corporate product. This is the most lackluster and pointlessly softened Disney fairy tale reboot to date. But at least that means it doesn’t drag a beloved director down with it.
Though pretty much all of the characters are devoid of personality and the actors playing them are left hung out to dry with little to do, it has to be said that ‘Maleficent’ is still somewhat worth watching purely for Angelina Jolie’s glorious, vamping performance. Since activism, parenting and directing (and a double mastectomy) derailed her acting career, the film marks the first time the actress has appeared on screens since 2010, and it’s almost startling to be reminded of what an incredible presence she has. The role might be dulled by tiresome backstory and softened by revisionist heroism, but Jolie still digs deeply into the few evil scenes she has left. Whenever she gets to be evil, Jolie’s million dollar smile and prosthetics-enhanced sharpened features fully embody the classic Disney villainess with entertaining results. She even manages to make the tragic backstory work, and you feel for the spurned character in unexpected ways. Jolie is the movie and she’s wonderful to watch. It’s just frustrating that everything else surrounding her central performance is so underdeveloped.
With the sheen and star power of a proper blockbuster, ‘Maleficent’ could have been magnificent. Sadly, its script and intent are so safe and by-the-numbers that the movie feels boring and impersonal.