With movies so eager to recycle previous content these days, it’s not much of a surprise that Disney picked one of its most popular animated characters for a live-action reboot. Of course, “live action” is a matter of opinion, since this new version of Sleeping Beauty consists largely of CGI landscapes and computer-based special effects. That carries its share of charms, to be sure, and the prospect of revisiting the story from the villain’s point of view is intriguing (especially considering the villain). At the same time, such an effort needs more on the table that just a lot of fodder for the art book. And in that all-important aspect, Maleficent can’t measure up.
At least you can’t fault Angelina Jolie, who rocks the doors off this thing (quite literally in some cases). Her reimagined Maleficent starts out as the protector of a beautiful faerie kingdom, only to lose her wings to a treacherous human lover (Sharlto Copley) and see said lover rise to the throne of the human kingdom next door. That’s certainly apt to piss a girl off, which is why she turns to the dark side and curses the king’s newborn daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) to fall into a sleep-like death on her sixteenth birthday. (As you may suspect, a spinning wheel is involved.)
That much is pro forma. The more interesting aspects of the story involve her gradually getting to know Aurora, finding she likes the girl more than she suspected and… well, to say more would be telling. Jolie hits every note perfectly, from the rage at her incalculable loss to the sinister glee she takes in revenge. As one-woman shows go, you could do a lot worse, and after years of middling performances, it’s great to see this reminder of why we dug her so much in the first place.
The script, unfortunately, can’t keep up with her. Her shifts in character come suddenly and capriciously, without any attendant reflection in the world around her. The fairy kingdom, for example, doesn’t need a queen… until she suddenly becomes evil and claims the throne… except that the faeries stay largely good, and don’t seem to have a problem with her… except the three fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) who try to raise her away from Maleficent’s eye… except that…
You get the picture. Important developments take place without an underlying motivation, and we’re asked to accept seismic upheavals in the story without more of an effort to connect the dots. It feels worst at the finale – one of the most arbitrary we’ve seen in years – but dogs the rest of the film from the earliest scenes. The lumpy structure leads to awkward plot holes that pull us away from the central story, and leave only empty visual effects in their wake. Jolie can’t do it all on her own. Nor can her supporting cast, who prove ready to rock and roll at a moment’s notice (particularly Sam Riley, playing Maleficent’s shape-shifting crow Diaval). When they can do their thing, Maleficent becomes all that we hoped for. That doesn’t happen nearly often enough though, and considering the film’s truncated running time, you get the sense that far too much was left on the cutting room floor.
Furthermore, its relationship with its predecessor remains seriously problematic. I have issues with the original Disney Sleeping Beauty: its gorgeous design and the beautiful wickedness of Maleficent herself struggle against an awkward structure and a central couple placed on the sidelines. Maleficent moves heaven and earth to correct those errors, only to exhibit the same strengths and fall into the same traps. It looks terrific and its central concept could have been marvelous with a tighter structure and a few more script revisions. Young children won’t complain, and if you’re looking for a way to introduce, say, an eight-year-old to the delicious joys of rooting for the bad guy, this may be the vehicle to do it. But Disney leans too much on the Screensaver model of filmmaking to entice its audience, and the plot is far too shaky to avoid all those pesky questions grown-ups ask that have no satisfying answer. It’s a lot of effort for very little payoff, something its sinister protagonist is far too awesome to allow.