Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copely, Elle Fanning
Directed by: Robert Stromberg (debut)
Written by: Linda Woolverton (“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Lion King”)
Who is a movie like “Maleficent” for? The film is too violent and scary for children who are—maybe—familiar with the Disney classic “Sleeping Beauty,” and too boring for the Hot Topic-shopping teens that made it out to see Tim Burton’s like-minded reimagining of “Alice in Wonderland.” No, “Maleficent” seems to serve one purpose: to give Angelina Jolie a role well-suited to her stature and facial features.
With revisionist takes on fairy tale villains being all the rage, “Maleficent” sets out to tell us the real story of why Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) cursed Aurora (Elle Fanning) to fall into a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel. You see, as a young fairy, the winged Maleficent met a poor, orphaned human boy, Stefan, hiding in the Moors, a peaceful and magical realm free from man. They fall in love as teenagers, only to be pulled apart when ambition draws Stefan back to humankind. Years pass, and the human ruler King Henry wages war on the Moors, to claim it for its riches. The grown Maleficent and her army of Ent-like tree warriors beat back the humans and send the king to his deathbed. King Henry promises the crown to the man who can kill Maleficent, an opportunity the adult Stefan (Sharlto Copely) seizes by sleazily reconnecting with Maleficent, only to drug her and cut off her wings, proof enough to make him king. Betrayed, Maleficent swears revenge on King Stefan, namely by cursing his newborn daughter Aurora to the aforementioned eternal sleep.
It’s pretty bold for a modern-day Disney movie to call one of the studio’s all-time classics an outright lie, but that’s how “Maleficent” treats the events of “Sleeping Beauty,” the latter coming across as a downright smear campaign against Maleficent, a woman scorned who just happens to have destructive magic powers and gnarly black goat horns. Mostly, though, the film is just dull. After her betrayal by Stefan—a thinly-veiled analogy for sexual assault—Maleficent spends a good deal of the movie just sort of hanging around, whether in her wicked tree throne or keeping a watchful eye on Aurora as she grows up, secretly covering for the near-deadly mistakes made by the three fairies charged with protecting the princess.
Maleficent’s relationship with Aurora is simultaneously the best and most problematic part of the movie. Jolie shines when expressing warmth for the cursed girl (and man, is Aurora a dim-bulb in this movie) and it hits a moment of real emotion when Maleficent seeks to revoke the curse, only to realize even she can’t undo it. But defanging one of Disney’s most badass villains, essentially turning her into a fairy godmother, leaves the film feeling like a giant shrug.