Contains mild spoilers.
Disney thought it would be a good idea to spend well over a hundred million dollars making a movie that shows the backstory of Sleeping Beauty to be a rape/revenge tale. It was, predictably, not a good idea. Maleficent is, predictably, not a good movie.
Technically based on a bunch of fairy tales as well as the Disney animated classic, Maleficent is really based on Wicked, which told the story of the Wicked Witch of the West with sympathetic eyes. Maleficent attempts to do the same thing with Disney’s premiere baddie, but rather than see the world through her eyes the film decides to simply retcon most of Sleeping Beauty, making Maleficent the true story that exposes the bullshit lies upon which Disney’s popular brand was founded.
Angelina Jolie is inert as the lead character, allowing her prosthetic cheekbones to do all the acting for her. For the first half of the movie she seems to never share the screen with another actor; I couldn’t tell if this was supposed to represent Maleficent’s isolation or the fact that Jolie didn’t want to deal with co-stars. When she is finally in shots with actors they’re often ugly greenscreen phantasmagorias that riff on fairyland imagery we’ve all seen a hundred times already. It’s like they just booted up Wonderland or Oz again and stuck Jolie inside of it.
The film’s creatures have that same plug and play feel; when Maleficent leads an army of tree trolls against the human king (don’t worry, it is far less interesting than it sounds) all of the beasties have a sense of rote familiarity. There’s exactly one weird fairy creature in this movie that feels new, but every other magical being or monster - of which there are very few, all things considered, and they do very little - seems designed to make you go, ‘Oh, I recognize that,’ as opposed to ‘Oh, this is something I have never seen before!’
That lack of imagination permeates the production. The prequel business ends after about 30 minutes, leaving me to wonder if the movie was (thankfully) already over. Instead Maleficent turns into a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but with a twist - all of the good characters from the cartoon are actually either evil, insufferable or stupid, and Maleficent must keep baby Aurora alive for sixteen years so she can prick her finger and fall into her deathsleep, as cursed. Basically Maleficent’s biggest adversaries are the three good fairies, played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesely Manville as irritating, bickering idiots who will happily let the baby fall off a cliff as they fight amongst themselves.
Sleeping Beauty’s dad, King Stefan is even nastier. He sits in his chambers obsessing over Maleficent as his wife dies unattended in another room. But what’s worse is that the whole damn movie is his fault. See, when he was a child he snuck into fairyland (which is next door to human land, but the two kingdoms had a tense detente) and was caught stealing something. Maleficent, a young fairy who de facto ruled the place (despite the narrator telling us how cool fairyland is for having no rulers) meets him and falls in love with him. They grow up together, and he gives her a ‘true love’s kiss’ on her sixteenth birthday. Then he fades out of her life, only to reappear years later as Sharlto Copley and drug her and cut off her wings in order to convince the old, dying king that she’s dead and secure his succession to the throne.
That is the entire origin of Maleficent - a boy betrays her love, roofies her and has his way with her. It’s sort of a rape thing, but it’s also very much a female genital mutilation thing - her wings are the majestic source of her particular fairy pride, and they allow her to soar into the heavens. It’s a strange metaphor to have in a PG film, but I’m not entirely sure that anyone knew what they were saying here.
That’s because I’m not entirely sure anyone made this movie. The film is less a narrative and more a series of pre-vizzed set pieces stitched together with a shitty narration. Sequences don’t flow, and scenes just exist within their own bubbles, tonally and even visually clashing with whatever happens on either side of them. It’s like someone faithfully adapted a corkboard full of pre-production design illustrations, scripting in the gaps later. The film is directed almost anonymously by Robert Stromberg, an FX artist and production designer who worked on films like Avatar and Oz The Great And Powerful, both of which are heavily riffed on in terms of design (but not in terms of whimsy, wonder or plot).
Into this rhythmless concoction are placed a small handful of characters. Maleficent goes from sweet fairy to evil laugh in about fifteen seconds, but then she immediately begins softening up again - although that actually gives her something of an arc, which can’t be said for anyone else. Maleficent is often joined by her crow-cum-human Diaval, played by Sam Riley with aplomb but no meaning. The two have some moments of banter, but they’re afterthoughts, a relationship unearned. Also appearing is Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora, a character so vapid that if Linda Woolverton’s script had any charm she’d be played for laughs. Or maybe the movie thinks she is being played for laughs - wit and whimsy are foreign to Maleficent.
The most shocking thing about Maleficent isn’t the weird subtextual aspects, it’s the way the movie textually assaults Sleeping Beauty. I’m no Disney guy, but I was under the impression that Sleeping Beauty was one of the classics, and that Maleficent was beloved because of her villainy (and her dragon-morphing abilities). This film takes a lot of that away (she does not become a dragon, someone else does) and it undermines much of the canon of that cartoon. This is outside the scope of a movie review, but it’s weird watching Disney step all over its own brand in this way.
As they step all over that brand they dilute and ruin Maleficent. Great, iconic villains are rare, and revealing that maybe this villain was never actually a villain after all kills her appeal. We want Maleficent to be wicked, and it’s okay that she’s justified in her wickedness - just make her wicked. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked managed to toe that line, but this film stumbles right over it, complete with a happy ending that contradicts the film itself (remember the bit where fairyland was better because it has no ruler? It ends up with a queen, and we’re supposed to like that).
Maleficent will test the patience of all but the most stultified moviegoer. It’s a corporate shrug, a movie intended to capitalize on an IP while riffing on elements that appear to have worked in other movies and properties. It’s an empty film whose bizarre, discordant subtext isn’t bizarre or discordant enough to really recommend.