MALEFICENT’s opening narration: “Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you really know it” might as well be the House of Mouse’s filmmaking mantra at this point in time, and basically gives them license to do whatever they want with their pre-existing material. The studio seems determined to do a live-action remake of all their animated greats at some point. We’ve seen a bloated ALICE IN WONDERLAND and an uninspiring THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE already, and have CINDERELLA and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST coming up.
We all know the story, an evil fairy bewitches a royal baby to eternal sleep from her 16th birthday until the curse can be broken by true love’s kiss. As well as dipping in and out of the imagery from the Disney animation, this version of the tale follows Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) from the start, reimagining her as a guardian of nature, and tries to examine her motivations and the hitherto unexplored relationship between her, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and the young Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).
The mythology presented here is muddy and confusing, specific yet somehow also too generic. The land of the fairies, here dubbed The Moors, and is never particularly well explored or explained, and we never really learn how it works or anything beyond the fact that Maleficent is the region’s guardian (for some reason), it’s guarded by tree creatures and there are various very Disney creatures who like having mudfights in streams. The generic Medieval Europe land of men is of course ruled by an evil-just-because tyrant and he has an army of useless cannon fodder under his command. The humans are so inept that a plot device had to be invented to make them a credible threat to Maleficent and her kind. We all know silver is deadly to werewolves, apparently iron causes agony for fay folk too.
There also seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about how European royal dynasties work in terms of how one inherits the throne. It’s established early on that Stefan is a lowly peasant who only ended up part if the king’s household through ambition and blind luck. He is not royalty. Yet after one “great” deed, he’s named (offscreen) heir to the crown, seemingly without any opposition from the nobility or anyone pointing out that he’s not from the right stock. I mean, there must be powerful nobles and pretenders positively swarming once the king (Kenneth Cranham) pops his clogs, but no-one puts up a challenge to Stefan – surely he’s not that terrifying (painful accent aside)?
SLEEPING BEAUTY has been padded to within an inch of its life, and the filmmakers have failed to take note that what made the devious fairy villain so compelling and fascinating in the original animated feature was her enigmatic nature. She was scarier and more interesting because we didn’t know anything about her. The shark in JAWS was only frightening when we couldn’t see it, and Maleficent is only chilling when we don’t understand her. Now we know everything, and it turns out she’s just another woman scorned, an archetype too often relied on by lazy screenwriters in Hollywood, and disappointingly adopted here by female writer Linda Woolverton.
There’s a key scene early on that delivers a nasty shock perhaps too intense for much of Disney’s target audience. Jolie plays it well, heartbreakingly in fact, but the deeply uncomfortable and adult subtext makes me question why it’s in a family film at all. It will confuse children, who will understand Maleficent is in pain, but not what else that pain implies, and likely lead to some awkward questions from them which adults will struggle to answer.
We do get a nice little twist on the only way to break Sleeping Beauty’s curse ( which seems to last all of ten minutes of screentime), but by the time this happens everything else in the story is reduced to an indistinct fantasy stodge. There are some cool-looking tree creatures that amazingly manage to look not much like ents. The director is a veteran VFX designer, and this certainly comes across in the construction of the fantasy setting and action scenes, though at times it feels more like Robert Stromberg is experimenting, trying every idea he has out and putting it on screen before it’s fully-formed. The recreation in live-action of Maleficent’s infamous first appearance at Aurora’s christening is admittedly perfect. The look of the scene, the feel of it, Jolie’s performance all become a flawless whole.
Aside from these elements that at least make Maleficent a curiosity, the film doesn’t really work, from out-of-the-blue changes in character motivations to the downright horrifying sight of the Frankenstein grafting of Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple’s faces onto fairy bodies, to Copley’s even more horrifying Scottish accent and hammy performance. It’s sadly not a film particularly worth your time, and you’d be far better off watching Disney’s original animated take on Sleeping Beauty. Though if people paying in droves to see a mediocre-to-poor film is what it takes to see more female-lead major (hopefully better) releases, then I guess it’s a necessary sacrifice. SSP