Maleficent, the sorceress who gives Sleeping Beauty her cursed slumber, is one of Walt Disney Animation’s greatest accomplishments. Frightening and elegant, she has a tall, statuesque presence, high model features, towering horns growing from her head, and flowing dark robes swooshing around her. She glows green with dark magic, and by the end uses her powers to conjure the form of a dragon to fight off the Princess’s chances for True Love’s Kiss. She’s an iconic image. Thus the challenge for Maleficent, a live-action retelling of the story from the sorceress’s point of view. How to fill the role with a mere flesh and blood actor? How to recapture the power of those drawn images, so striking and so fearsome? Luckily, the filmmakers were able to meet the challenge and cast Angelina Jolie, whose high cheekbones, piercing eyes, and elegant silhouette make her an imposing presence when draped in the makeup and wardrobe to match the character’s iconic look. Here her eyes are fierce, her face is sculpted and angular. She’s a perfect fit.
But making Maleficent the center of this story is not without its problems. In the 1959 film, as in the fairy tale upon which it was based, she’s pure evil, bestowing an awful curse on an infant for her parent’s crime of failing to invite the witch to a party. Maleficent is a force of destruction and looms large over the plot as pure threat, casting a dark shadow over innocent first love, worried parents, and sweet dotty fairies in a colorful Disney kingdom. Maleficent is out to make some changes, moving the title character into the position of protagonist. This isn’t Sleeping Beauty of old. It opens with a narrator (Janet McTeer) telling us about two lands that sit side by side. One is a kingdom ruled by man. The other is a magical forest ruled by no one, the better for fairies, living trees, sprites, and other fanciful creatures to frolic freely. In this forest a young Maleficent lives, carefree until the day a man (Sharlto Copley) appears, tells her he loves her, and then steals her wings.
The man presents the wings to the dying king in order to be named his successor. Now the new king, he has a daughter. She is cursed on the day of her christening by the vengeful, violated Maleficent who lashes out at the man who hurt her by attacking his child. Hidden away in the forest by three largely incompetent fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, great actresses doing bad comic relief), the baby grows up to be Aurora (Elle Fanning). Something - lingering guilt, perhaps, over hurting a child for the crimes of her father – makes Maleficent hang around, offering unseen assistance to Aurora as she grows, becoming something like a fairy godmother to her. And so, regretting her curse, Maleficent and her raven sidekick (Sam Riley) try to undo it before it is too late. Meanwhile, the evil king is plotting to invade the enchanted forest and slay the sorceress once and for all.
Flipping the script on a classic villain, Linda Woolverton (of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) has written a screenplay that’s a bit of a mess, but at least finds thorny thematic issues with which to wrestle. Now it is not a fairy tale about unexplained evil and the pat True Love that will conquer all. Instead, it’s a movie about the marginalization of women, in which the king sees both Maleficent and Aurora as pawns in his life story instead of people with thoughts, feelings, and ambitions of their own. Just as surely as Maleficent is wounded for the sake of his promotion, his daughter is cast aside for his peace of mind. In the end, Maleficent made huge mistakes, but it’s the king who is the real bad guy.
That’s all interesting, but if only the film had the patience to stop and wrestle with the ideas. Instead, it’s content to only suggest deeper thoughts as it hustles its way through exposition and character beats with a sense of obligation instead of enchantment. Even the appearance of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) is a huge non-event, which is at once a hilarious example of the movie’s welcome shifting of gender roles and an example of its half-hearted plotting. I love how it takes a story about a young woman whose fate is decided by her father and her love and makes it a story about misunderstood and victimized women and their complicated relationship with each other, but the movie is simply too frustratingly thin to support these deeper concerns.
While Sleeping Beauty is less emotionally complex, it has a stronger and more direct sense of storytelling. Maleficent has a vague understanding of what a story looks like, but often plays like a series of haphazardly connected scenes. Characters have changes of heart and evolutions of thinking for no other reason than because the movie needs them to do so. Consequently, there is not a lot of momentum here and the film grows mushy and aimless in the center as it spends its time telling us what we need to know instead of allowing it to unfold. The result is a small cast standing against flat, over-lit CGI backgrounds reciting dialogue that sounds like someone left all the subtext on the surface of the rough draft and never did a rewrite to bury it.
At least it fits the general phoniness of everything around them. There is never a sense this fantasy world is real. It just doesn’t look good. Director Robert Stromberg is a visual effects artist making his directorial debut. The picture is filled with competently visualized spectacle, with tree-creatures and strange little fantasy animals wandering around. When Maleficent flies about it’s with a convincing woosh and the dragon in the climax is as big, scaly, and fiery as you’d expect. But the action is repetitive and dull. The environments are stiff and dead. It never feels like a coherent vision of a place or time. It’s just disconnected digital frippery. If it was chintzier, you could almost accuse it of feeling like it was shot in a corner of the Disney backlot. Instead, it just looks like endlessly green-screened busyness. This is the movie’s biggest downfall. On a visual level, it simply isn’t as convincing, as inky dark and richly imagined as its lead performance.
Jolie stands in the center of the movie as iconic a screen creation as ever there was. The scene in which the screen darkens as shadows cast by scary green fire flicker over her face as she bellows sinister magic into a crib is genuinely spooky. And yet, Jolie sells her character’s hurt and regret, her elegance and her frozen mask of emotions that slowly melts for the child she has doomed. She’s a sympathetic, complicated creature, capable of glowering harm and glimmering compassion. It’s a great, full-blooded performance in a movie that’s simply not up to the task of working on her level. She’s so good I wished there was enough to the scenes to allow her to really sink her teeth in and chew. She’s big. It’s the picture that’s small.