Angelina Jolie is Maleficent, the witch queen, and Angelina Jolie is Maleficent, the movie. Because without the delectable wickedness she gives to the embittered witch, the movie (adapted from Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty) would be a total snooze. Even the sporadically arresting special effects can’t compensate for the dumbed-down script—Disney’s musical cartoon is sophisticated in comparison—that leaves the other characters with little of interest to do, and only the blandest of clichés with which to establish a personality. Maleficent, however, with her demonic horns and angel-of-death wings, her acid-dripping voice and sly understatement, lives up to the iconic original, and it’s a good thing, too, because this is her story.
Magically spinning gold out of dross, Jolie surpasses the script by implying an entire lifetime of disappointment in Maleficent’s every utterance—unless she’s on the rampage, and then her regal articulation and beguiling smile are more sinister than any other evil in the land. Maleficent is emotionally complex in every scene, and if the rest of the film were as textured, this live-action remake might’ve been a modern classic. But as is, it’s mostly awful, directed by a novice (special-effects whiz Robert Stromberg), and written by Linda Woolverton, who penned the ghastly freak show of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
As a feminist revision, Maleficent has a kernel of a good idea, and Jolie works it to her character’s great advantage. The plot is mostly backstory, in which Maleficent, a strong and brave fairy (played as a child by Isobelle Molloy) living in an enchanted forest, learns through cruel experience that there is no such thing as true love. Malevolence takes root in her kindly heart.
There’s also a nearby kingdom that wants to conquer and destroy the forest. The king’s men march into battle, and Maleficent saves the day by bringing forth the powers of the Earth: root balls, warthogs, warrior tree men (think Ents crossed with Transformers) and gigantic thorn bushes that erupt from the ground like monsters from the deep. But though Maleficent is victorious in battle, she is undone by treachery, and the forest and its odd creatures are put in peril. For the power-mad king has been succeeded by the devious Stefan (Sharlto Copley), Maleficent’s long-ago childhood sweetheart.
When King Stefan and his queen have a daughter, Aurora, the baby is blessed by fairies (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple); one of the blessings is that she will always be happy, and so as a grown girl (Elle Fanning) she comes across as a simpleton because she grins and giggles no matter how dire her situation—worsening the film’s tendency to underdramatize. Instead of psychology or suspense, the film unfolds with noise and visual effects. Aurora is cursed by Maleficent, but in a kinder, gentler, and shallower reinvention of the original.
Meanwhile, the talented cast is wasted on insipid dialogue, especially the wonderfully eccentric Copley (District 9) as King Stefan and Sam Riley (Control) as the spellbound raven-man that gets shape-shifted in every scene. The fairies are annoyingly idiotic and poorly conceived in their CGI incarnations—especially disappointing since Stromberg was among those responsible for the amazing creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth.
A few of the animal sprites, specifically the fishy things that swim through the air, show a glimmer of artistic originality, and the dragon is a competent remake, but all the creatures great and small are just effects, nothing more. Maleficent is manufactured with the simplicity of YA comic book when what it needed was the richness of the Grimms’ folk tale.