Sometimes bad guys deserve to be bad. In this case, make that bad girls. Maleficent is latest in the gritty fairy tale updates coming from the producer of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman. If that alone doesn’t speak to what’s gone wrong here, then watching Disney’s most fearsome villain getting her wings clipped via the humanizing treatment in an overproduced mess will.
A long time ago, boy met girl. Boy would become king; girl would become an evil witch. After Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), the fairy guardian of the magical Moors, is betrayed by her human sweetheart Stefan (Sharlto Copley), her heart grows cold and the once benevolent protector goes down a much darker path. After cursing Stefan’s infant daughter, Maleficent soon finds that true love may be found in the most unlikely of places.
Given the character’s high standing among animated villainy to this day, Maleficent had every chance to go down a much darker, daring road than its live-action fairy tale predecessors. In the end, the film is more two-dimensional and safe than even its actual animated counterpart.
Like just about every Joe Roth production, everything about Maleficent feels calculated to the last decimal to get maximum agreeability and minimum risk. Giant battles, bumbling fairies, a prince, baby cursing and cutesy woodland creatures are all present, though not for any real balanced reason — no, just because they’re obliged to be.
We saw with Oz the Great and Powerful that even the most trope-filled story could have some soul as director Sam Raimi gave the film enough heart for things to work. Here, production designer-turned-director Robert Stromburg focuses only on replicating the look of the fairy tale world instead of fleshing it out with novelties such as relatable characters and genuine human emotion.
The players, with the likes of Copley, Sam Riley and Elle Fanning, are left to merely go through the motions on an apathetic script that feels like the least important priority for the filmmakers. It’s as if everyone knew all the work would be done on a computer later on and didn’t bother to bring any soul to the picture.
But perhaps the most unforgivable offense is the handling of Maleficent herself. Jolie is undoubtedly the physical embodiment of the character and holds herself as such on screen. Her grand entrance at the procession is easily the most fun we see her have the the character as she chews the scenery with appropriate gusto.
The problem is, besides that scene, there really is no recognizable Maleficent in the film.
The Maleficent we see in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty is, quite simply, a BAMF. Voiced by Eleanor Audley, Maleficent was a magnetic presence on screen. Her evil deeds needed no backstory or explanation. She existed as an elegant beacon of wickedness and sought to bring evil everywhere she went.
Another victim of Hollywood’s need to neuter classic villains/anti-heroes, Maleficent in this film is the character in name only. As part of the new spin, she spends a majority of the film as a guardian figure instead of a truly despicable antagonist. Not only is this not the character we know, it’s nowhere near as interesting as what could have been if the filmmakers had only stuck to what works. Like Pirates‘ Jack Sparrow, some characters flourish by stealing scenes instead of being constantly showered in spotlight (provided that they’re even the same character).
As the credits start rolling and the lights come up, the one beacon of enlightened work appears: Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Once Upon a Dream”. As if from a completely different (better) movie, Del Rey’s swooning song makes you think what the film could have been had it not only been a dumping ground for visual effects, tired tropes and a misshaping of a character who deserved much better.