Walt Disney‘s original 1959 classic “Sleeping Beauty” is notable for several reasons, but most remember it for two things: its outrageously intricate design style, medieval-inspired artwork combined with an angularly modern sensibility and Maleficent, the self-described “Mistress of All Evil.” Voiced with velvety viciousness by Eleanor Audley, Maleficent was the wicked sorceress who curses the Princess Aurora with an eternal slumber. Between her now iconic look and the fact that she turned into a frickin’ dragon in the movie’s last act, Maleficent was a character that inspired both awe and loathing. Antagonist movies aside (never easy to pull off), it’s easy to see why Disney would want to devote an entire movie to the perspective of this embittered and potentially complex character. But the resulting film, entitled “Maleficent,” doesn’t seem worthy of the immortal villainess. It is, in fact, a largely flavorless snooze.
Things start off wobbly for “Maleficent.” Instead of “Sleeping Beauty,” from a wicked perspective, it’s a Maleficent-centered prequel: a young fairy, with giant, eagle-like wings, soars through the Moors, a kind of fairy tale valley equal parts Pandora and Fantasyland. She communes with nature, including Guillermo del Toro-esque tree-like monsters, and falls in love, with a young (human) peasant named Stefan, who has an insatiable lust for power.
Years later— after a lot of clunky narration and some clumsily soaring, sub-Danny Elfman music by James Newton-Howard (would it have killed them to use some of the original Pyotr Tchaikovsky score?)—Maleficent has transformed into Angelina Jolie, while Stefan has become Sharlto Copley. Now much less enamored with his former love, Stefan’s eyes are on the prize of fiefdom. In short, he betrays her in an appalling manner in order to achieve supremacy (in a troubling scene that is akin to a fantastical and creepy date rape), but even more problematic is how poorly this duplicity isn’t really followed up on.
Replete with needlessly knotty and exposition-filled back-story, the movie finally arrives at the classic fairy tale you know: at young Princess Aurora’s coronation, Maleficent appears and curses the child to die on her sixteenth birthday (you know, the pin prick, the deep slumber, etc). This is Maleficent’s circuitous form of revenge on Stefan’s treachery. And despite some shoddy visual effects work on the trio of goodly fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville)— this particular sequence totally works. Jolie, in leather, horns and the pointed cheekbones, is Maleficent and a sight to behold. She hams it up beautifully and the movie briefly tips its hat to what a truly wonder-inspiring visual experience the original film was. Perhaps all were aware this was the one sequence that they had to replicate faithfully, green flames and all, because god knows the rest of the movie deviates wildly, with decidedly poor results.
Jumping forward to a nearly of-age Aurora (Elle Fanning), the princess is now living in the forest with her fairy overseers, and “Maleficent” luxuriates in these sequences with no forward momentum. Once seen as headstrong, determined sprites, they are recast as toxically poor parents who nearly accidentally kill Aurora on several occasions. Who is there to save her? Why Maleficent, of course, who now watches over the child throughout the years, making sure she is safe and happy… for reasons that are never entirely clear. Maleficent introduces her to the wonders of the Moors, amidst a sea of artificially elaborate special effects.
Strangely enough, the picture doesn’t care to imagine a complex inner life for either Maleficent or Aurora, even though it purports to act as a female empowerment movie. As one of the few female-led movies this summer, both of the lead female characters are curiously under-written; more two-dimensional than their animated counterparts, and far less striking visually. Sadly no amount of vamping can make Jolie’s character more dimensional or interesting.
Unfortunately for him, much of the blame— especially during the movie’s cluttered, chaotic, unfocused third act— falls squarely on director Robert Stromberg, a production designer making his feature debut on a $200 million tentpole (reshoots were supposedly completed by “Saving Mr. Banks” director John Lee Hancock). Another filmmaker, say, Brad Bird or Tim Burton (both of whom were attached at various junctures), could have elevated the script by Linda Woolverton (with some uncredited work by Paul Dini) into something special: a call to arms for young girls to embrace their inner strength and power, and to never apologize for that power, no matter how wicked others might deem it. Instead Stromberg just fumbles these ideas. The movie instead aspires to be about how, no matter how evil someone might seem, there is something deeply hurt and human inside (even if they have giant, eagle-like wings), with Maleficent being the ultimate “she’s not bad she’s just misunderstood” character. But Stromberg buries this conceit under a mountain of nonsensical plot points and poor characterization; who cares if she’s misunderstood if she’s so damn dull?
On a visual level, most of the visage is grim, empty and uninspired. The film’s 3D doesn’t even dazzle like the original film’s 70 mm presentation (in a super-wide 2:55:1 aspect ratio). Rick Baker‘s make-up work on Jolie is pretty spectacular, but otherwise, there isn’t a single sequence in “Maleficent” that is at all distinguishable from “Snow White and the Huntsman” or any number of recent fairy tale-derived blockbusters; it’s all shrill declarations, clanging armor and anonymously stony castles. Sam Riley also appears in a thankless role as the raven from the animated film, but this part is essentially a tangent in a movie that feels as if it comprised of nothing but tangential subplots (there’s a Prince too and he’s a total non-starting dud that makes Aaron Taylor-Johnson in “Godzilla” seem like Mr. Personality).
What could have been a strong tale of female empowerment, both in terms of Sleeping Beauty (a farm girl rube who grows up to become a wonderful leader) and Maleficent (a wicked witch who locates her heart and becomes even stronger), instead boils down to the old rape-and-revenge fantasy. In an attempt to explain Maleficent’s evil, they instead make her weak and easily swayed, a woman who has been taken advantage of and then decided to hastily lash out. Her transformation into the villainess isn’t elaborated on appropriately either; she goes from being a humble fairy to a dark enchantress seemingly overnight, without any opposition from any of the creatures she seemingly oversees. And while there are occasional moments of connection between the two leads, in which the witch’s vulnerability matches well with the young princess’ fragility, it’s still deeply unclear why Maleficent is so fascinated by the child in the first place. Is it because Maleficent’s own childhood was so violently robbed of her by Stefan? Or is it because she feels guilty about having placed such a horrible spell over the child in the first place?
“Maleficent” desperately tries to create a character whose motivation you will understand and empathize with. But the screenplay and direction are such a tangled, thorny patch of conflicting ideas that it’s hard to tell what that motivation is supposed to be. Maleficent has been made cuddly, a wicked witch who introduces a young girl to the fairy world just beyond her realm, but on both a narrative and thematic level this feels like a worse betrayal than Stefan clipping her wings. Maleficent was a character so furious and powerful that she transformed herself into a fearsome dragon; in this movie she’s happy to just make her lackey do it. It’s that lack of strength that makes “Maleficent” even more damnable; in 2014 the Mistress of All Evil is just another victim. [C-]