“Evil is complicated” proclaims the twitter campaign for Disney’s latest live action retelling of a classic tale. In this case, it’s a story from the perspective of the villain of Sleeping Beauty fame. Complicated? No, just horribly bland.
A young fairy with horns and massive black feathered wings, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) is the guardian of the mysterious Moors, the land of the magical fair folk, isolated from the greedy and corrupt kingdom of men just yonder. When a young orphaned peasant, Stefan (Michael Higgins) ventures into her domain, an unlikely friendship blossoms into something more, but is doomed for tragedy.
Fast forward an unspecified number of years later and Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a fairy scorned, bitter and out for revenge. Stefan (Sharlto Copley) has finagled himself onto the throne, now king, and is celebrating the birth of his daughter Aurora. Presumably you know the original story well enough to have an idea of what happens next. Faced with the evil curse, the princess (Elle Fanning) is isolated for her safety, cared for by three bumbling fairies with good intentions (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, and Juno Temple) until her sixteenth birthday passes so that she may escape the deathly promise.
If I was overly cynical I would cry conspiracy and make a case that this film is all part of liberal Hollywood trying to downplay the difference between good and evil, making what was once cut and dry more complicated, greying the lines and polluting perspectives. It does seem to be a trend, perhaps started with the relatively recent popularity of Wicked, to take established villains and give them a more interesting story to redeem them. I can certainly see there being a valid issue worth examining, but at the same time it reflects the importance of trying to know someone’s story before casting down condemnation. However, this seems forced when the character in question is a self proclaimed mistress of all evil and whose very name reflects that. Would it have been too much to at least have this intentionally demonic looking character take that name at the point she turns to the dark side? It’s as if we were given a character named Dark Helm the Evil Destroyer and expected to accept the fact that he is actually a good guy. It doesn’t really work. Though a relatively minor quibble, it taints the feeling of the film, and that is the least of its problems.
Presented as a retelling of the animated Disney classic from another perspective, that angle falls apart nearly immediately after the two plots converge as events constantly deviate significantly. It is one thing to show the same story interpreted differently as unseen facts are revealed, but it is another to act as if things are the same, but make vast changes to established elements of the story. Starting with the fact that it was Maleficent herself that changed the curse to be an endless sleep rather than through the cleverness of one of the good fairies, this version downplays the involvement of everyone but the title character. If this was a story based on actual true events, one would be suspicious that this version is just as biased as the original, but coming from the other side.
Angelina Jolie no doubt looks the part and plays it with relish, perhaps a bit too obviously. She’s running the show and it plays out too much like a passion project of the worst variety. Too absorbed in showing the good and complicated sides of the villainess, the promised evil side is only briefly visited, and her changes of heart never really examined. She seems a bit bipolar, in fact, with how quickly she goes from being a carefree loving spirit, to a mistress of wickedness and back. Hardly a stable role model.
Maleficent’s personality isn’t the only thing that is inconsistent, as her magical powers seem to be dictated by necessity of plot and scene, varying in strength and ability as the screenwriters see fit. Logic is left by the wayside on more than one occasion. Logic, in fact, is something none of the characters seem to know anything of. Constantly ignoring obvious decisions in favor of stupidly moving the story along, it culminates in a rather convoluted ending that tries to blend elements of the cartoon with the story this film is actually trying to tell. When the audience breaks into laughter during what is obviously supposed be one of the dramatic high points, you’re doing it wrong.
The story plods along through computer generated fantasy landscapes that can’t decide whether they are supposed to look realistic or not. Even less believable than some of the Pandora-lite scenery is the laughably terrible Scottish brogue attempted by the usually talented Copley. Not that the rest of the cast does much better. Nothing here quite works.
The film is not overly long, but boredom and indifference set in rather quickly with nothing to pull the audience in. It is difficult to say what demographic this film is intend to appeal to, as I can’t see it being entertaining to any.
Visually there are some interesting sequences, and admittedly Jolie is well suited to the part. There are even some elements of the story that hold promise, were they not forcibly tacked onto the spine of the existing tale. There are some moments of enjoyable nostalgia where parts of the animated classic are recreated or reflected in this version. To it’s credit, also, the movie makes a halfhearted attempt to acknowledge the inappropriateness of the traditional true love’s kiss waking the princess routine – before moving on to another awkward situation. The single best part of the movie is the haunting rendition of Once upon a Dream during the credits.
Sometimes at the end of a movie you may ask yourself “why was this a thing?” In this case, Maleficent has no good answer.
Mrs. Hamster says:
“My Voldemort origins fan fiction was better than this story.”
My rating: Two out of five hats
Maleficent curses 3,948 theaters, May 30 in 2D and 3D