Maleficent perfectly demonstrates how a good idea can be destroyed in the hands of an incompetent director.
More so than any other movie in recent memory, Maleficent perfectly demonstrates how a good idea can be destroyed in the hands of an incompetent director. First-time director Robert Stromberg takes a rather clever concept—exploring the backstory of one of Disney’s most well-known but mysterious villains—and jettisons anything endearing or engaging, leaving just an empty shell of perplexing, under-realized imagery. Stromberg, who has won Oscars for his work as production designer on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, is clearly capable of creating vividly imagined worlds; he just has no ability to pare down his ideas into a single coherent vision.
The title character, if you don’t remember from your childhood, is the evil being who cast a spell on Sleeping Beauty in the classic Disney story. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) was once the happiest fairy that ever lived, enjoying her idyllic life in the secluded land that lies just beyond the human kingdom. The humans have always resented their magical neighbors and treat their existence with hostility, occasionally erupting into war. Maleficent, though, always hopes to resolve any conflicts peacefully.
But, after she is betrayed by Stefan (Sharlto Copley), the human she loves, Maleficent turns into a dark and vengeful creature who sees humans as her sworn enemy. Stefan becomes the ruler of the kingdom, and when his daughter is born, Maleficent places a curse on her: Before her 16th birthday, she will fall into a “sleep like death” and never wake up.
The “unknown” story, though, is how Maleficent comes to care for the girl, Aurora (Elle Fanning), as she grows up. Aurora is trusting and full of life, characteristics Maleficent has never seen in a human. As Aurora approaches her 16th birthday, Maleficent struggles with the knowledge of what awaits her, and the fact that she is powerless to stop it.
Unsurprisingly, Jolie is the best part of the movie, making her good-turned-evil fairy truly terrifying. Instead of focusing on the moments Jolie really makes the audience shiver—anytime her devilish smile appears, for example—Stromberg forces her to expend much of her talent yelling or screeching, neither of which make her engaging for the audience. In the few quiet moments, though, Jolie gives a superior performance, stopping the viewer cold with her intimidating stare. Maleficent also has a wry sense of humor that is largely wasted in the movie, but when she is allowed to engage with it, Jolie delivers the comedic beats perfectly.
The movie itself could have been so much more enjoyable had Stromberg not been trying to please every conceivable audience at once. The tone shifts almost constantly from family-friendly fantasy, to gritty period piece, to nearly surreal, Labyrinth-esque adventure. Stromberg apparently took the direct-by-committee approach and accepted any and all suggestions about design, character creation, world-building, and storytelling. There are a handful of truly beautiful images in the film (a result of Stromberg’s artistic background), but they are so fleeting that any true appreciation is immediately extinguished.
The script was written by Linda Woolverton, a longtime Disney writer, and there are glimpses of an original draft that must have been far more inspired. The story of how and why Maleficent became evil is, without question, quite intriguing, but it is wasted in this bloated What Dreams May Come rip-off. Woolverton needed to trim the prologue that serves as a first act, but otherwise, the script is decent.
Maleficent isn’t nearly as bad as Oz: the Great and Powerful (another disappointing fairytale “origin story”), but it comes close. Never sure of itself or what it wants to be, Maleficent is simply forgettable. | Matthew Newlin