“You poor, simple fools, thinking you could defeat me. Me! The Mistress of All Evil!” – Maleficent, “Sleeping Beauty” (1959)
With her boastful, grandiose poise, her fiendish cackling and her hateful, sarcastic and sly mocking of her own minions, Maleficent is Disney’s truly great villain. She is the only one who could be seen as completely sadistic. Free of irony or humor, Disney created a movie monster capable of pure, well, maleficence.
And within just moments of Disney’s latest spinoff and CGI, live-action reboot/reimagining, “Maleficent” manages to erase all of the character’s iconography and bravura.
With the equally iconic and monumental Angelina Jolie taking up the live action role, it makes perfect sense that Disney might want to revive one of their most memorable figures. Jolie has the star power necessary to inhabit this cartoon character with real-world evil, and here she manages to do so with just a few glances.
But Director Robert Stromberg’s film turns Maleficent toothless, painting her first as a precocious fairy child prancing and flying through a dream world. She meets a boy who calls her name like she’s Lassie, develops a crush and turns evil only when he betrays her. Maleficent’s lover is Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who severs Maleficent’s wings and uses them to ascend to King of the region’s humans.
But then you know the rest. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay lifts the newborn Aurora’s christening almost directly from “Sleeping Beauty,” and the rest of the fairy tale hasn’t been changed so much as written around in the vein of Broadway’s “Wicked.” We learn that Maleficent watched over Aurora (played by Elle Fanning as a teenager) as she grew older and even attempted to remove her curse.
The realization that Maleficent was nice all along comes as little surprise. It doesn’t take long before Maleficent is moved to compassion for Aurora and is invested in her growth and life, even saving her from certain death several times.
It’s one more backstory element that feels rushed. Stromberg provides the film little rhythm and finds himself flitting between mushy beauty shots and grim, “Lord of the Rings”-like chaos and action. What’s surprising is that “Maleficent” is mercifully short at 97 minutes, considering how bloated modern blockbusters have become. But Stromberg’s messy execution never makes the film feel any shorter.
Stromberg is a first time director but a two-time Oscar winning Production Designer and Visual Effects artist on some of the biggest CGI spectacles and franchises of the last decade. “Maleficent” looks as strong as any of his past work, but only because he borrows heavily from all of it. A dash of “Avatar” aerial stunts here, a little bit of “Alice in Wonderland” scenery there and a pinch of monsters lifted from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” are a very expensive way of making “Maleficent” look entirely safe, familiar and dull.
But behind Maleficent’s high protruding cheekbones and CGI wingspan, there’s an impressive movie villain in Jolie’s performance. Watching her cry in agony is hardly her best work, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else embracing this role and making it plausible. But perhaps those at Disney were always poor, simple fools thinking they could recreate Maleficent, the Mistress of All Evil.