If you remember anything distinctly about Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” which tends to blur in the memory next to his similar and far superior “Snow White,” it’s probably the evil sorceress Maleficent.
And that’s not surprising because her pure malevolence, her downright hiss-worthiness, makes her a splendid villain — someone we can truly love to hate.
So it’s particularly disappointing to learn in Disney’s new, visually impressive but dramatically bankrupt re-imagining of the tale, that she really wasn’t so bad. Heck, she’s not even a witch when you get right down to it. Just a fairy gone wrong.
It’s no surprise that “Maleficent” looks like a million bucks ($200-million to be precise) since it’s the directorial debut of two-time Oscar-winning production designer and visual effects whiz Robert Stromberg (“Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland”). As a showcase of production design it’s terrific (despite going to the extreme of turning star Angelina Jolie into a walking piece of scenery).
As a living, breathing story, though, it’s less convincing, beginning with our introduction to the young Maleficent’s bright, carefree, wondrously magical childhood.
Young Maleficent (strange name for a golden fairy princess) is the playful, guardian of the fairy kingdom of the Moor, skylarking about, engaging in mud-slinging fights with cutesy-hideous gnomes and keeping a wary but benign eye on the noxious kingdom of men across the river. Until she happens to meet and befriend a young orphan boy named Stefan, who’s snuck into the Moor to steal jewels. A romance develops and the adult Maleficent (Jolie) falls in love with the adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who eventually turns treacherous, drugging her and cutting off her wings when the king offers his throne to anyone who can defeat her.
Which understandably ticks Maleficent off. To the point where she places the famous curse on the new King Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora, dooming her to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and sleep forever. Unless someone happens by with true love’s kiss.
All the key elements from Disney’s original are present: Aurora’s three fairy godmothers (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple, transformed into brainless slapstick pixies), Maleficent’s raven sidekick (popping in and out of human form as a mildly annoyed Sam Riley), the wall of thorns, the charming prince (rendered irrelevant in a clever twist) and, best of all, the fire-breathing dragon — and they all provide helpful diversion.
Nonetheless, “Maleficent” is hobbled from the beginning, first by Stromberg’s awkward direction, resulting in a disconnect between the fantasy elements and the drama, and then by the torturous twists of the revisionist story. We’re supposed to follow Maleficent’s shifts gears from good to evil and back again but none of those transitions feel entirely credible. Least believable is her 360-degree change of heart, supposedly motivated by the pure goodness of teenage Aurora (Elle Fanning), who’s far too giddily delighted with every little thing about living.
It must be said that Jolie is perfectly cast as Maleficent, at least when she’s allowed to settle into evil mode, in which she can express pure malevolence with one slightly arched eyebrow. However, she looks stranded whenever a nice mood strikes. Maybe, because for an evil sorceress, that’s just not natural.Tags: movies