Disney’s desire to drain as much profit out of their properties as possible arrives in the form of Maleficent, and boy does the struggle show. Revamping Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view is not enough for the infamous House of Mouse. Instead, they want to go all Wicked on the material, making the former evil icon that everybody knows and loves into a misunderstood magical being with a heart of gold (or at the very least, bronze) and a plausible personal vendetta. She’s not the shapeshifting sorceress with nothing but unholy mayhem in her horned head. Instead, she’s an enchanted gal, betrayed by a human, who decides to use her powers as a final kiss-off for a failed adolescent relationship.
You see, when she was young, Maleficent (eventually Angelina Jolie) fell in love with a human named Stefan (eventually Sharlto Copley). There is an uneasy truce between the real and fairy realms, and young hearts just can’t be tamed. Well, war eventually breaks out for no good reason and a now older Maleficent successfully defends a challenge from the sitting king (Kenneth Cranham). Defeated, he offers up his kingdom to any man who can vanquish her.
Stefan uses his previous paramour position to double-cross Maleficent. After ascending to the throne and marrying, he has a baby daughter named Aurora (eventually Elle Fanning). Our now wicked witch sees a chance for some personal payback and puts a curse on the child. When she turns 16, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep… forever!
Stefan, furious at Maleficent’s actions, demands retribution. In the meantime, he places Aurora with three bumbling nitwit fairies — Knotgrass (Imelda Stauton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville) — who are charged with protecting her. Of course, they are incompetent and it is Maleficent who ends up “raising” the child. She grows fond of Aurora and she of her. Eventually, Maleficent wants to rescind the curse, but can’t. This leads to a last-act confrontation between her past, her present, and what she hopes will be her much brighter and happier future.
As it plods along with its overly busy plot and attempts to milk humor out of three British actresses with goofball accents falling over themselves like morons over a badly-bearded, scenery-chomping Copley, Maleficent manages to reach only a passing interest level. First-time feature filmmaker Robert Stromberg (who won Oscars for his F/X work in Avatar and Alice in Wonderland) has no idea how to pace his scenes, structure a script, or keep performances or plot points within the overall tone of his tale. At one moment, we’re watching magical creatures romp and play like a Saturday morning cartoon. The next, dark and horrible things are happening. Even the main character suffers from rewrite schizophrenia. One moment she’s a demonic hellion. The next, she’s weeping over Aurora’s kind heart.
That’s the main problem with Maleficent; it doesn’t know what it wants to be. By reworking the classic fairy tale into something other than its original form (as a matter a fact, a good subtitle for what happens here would be “Briefly Napping Beauty”), it attempts to cater to every commercial concern out there. It provides spectacle (in slipshod 3D) and kid-vid nuance, splashy CG set-pieces and callbacks to the original House of Mouse animation. What it doesn’t provide is a purpose. There’s no reason to make this movie except that Disney has done it before (Tim Burton with Alice in Wonderland, Sam Raimi with Oz the Great and Powerful) and both of those movies were moneymakers. Both also had a solid artistic vision that Maleficent is sorely lacking.
Still, Ms. Jolie does her best, fake cheekbones and all, and her international status should guarantee a decent return on the investment. But Maleficent isn’t a blockbuster. Instead, it’s a bungle.