Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley and Sam Riley
Directed by Robert Stromberg
From Walt Disney Pictures
Disney goofs up with awful Maleficent
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
And this is why you don’t needlessly tinker with franchises.
Never before in Disney’s history — at least, not its theatrical history — has a movie been so poorly constructed, so rattled, so lost, so hopelessly written and so inconceivably misguided. From top to bottom, Maleficent is a wreck heaped on more wreck, a smoldering ruin of what was once 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. Disney has been sitting pretty the six months since Frozen blew out the windows, and now comes this awful setback.
Fairy tales are known for their simplicity, but you’d never guess that here as a simple premise — an enchanted sleep, “true love’s kiss” and a demonic sorceress — is turned on its head and punted into the backfield. Angelina Jolie stars as the fairy Maleficent, a name that will challenge even the most gifted public speakers. I think the syllable-busting name is pronounced mall-eff-iss-cent, though it’s hard to tell since each character says it differently.
The winged and horned fairy lives in a tree kingdom called James Cameron’s Avatar, which is right next door to a human kingdom of stone and iron, presumably called King’s Landing based on its number of mindlessly cruel old white dudes. One day she falls in love with the human Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who is clearly just bored with life. When Stefan doesn’t show much interest, and later hacks off her wings, she goes on an epic bender that culminates into her publically cursing a baby in its cradle. You’ve heard the curse before: before her 16th birthday, the baby will prick her finger on spindle and fall into a death-like sleep. The movie gets that part right, though not much else.
This plot is a mess, one that begins with a 25-minute voice-over introduction and then flops forward in flailing lunges for the next hour. Once the film establishes Maleficent is a wounded lovelorn fairy, it doesn’t take long to make her a villain, first with a big Lord of the Rings-style battle and then with her creepy stalking of the baby, Aurora, as she grows up in a nearby forest. These Aurora scenes are unintentionally hilarious as Maleficent lingers outside windows and behind trees for 16 years. Other witches have glowing orbs or swirling cauldrons that will show them the things they want to see; Maleficent has to sneak through the bushes in black latex bodysuits and velvet robes. And with those horns, she better hope it’s not elk season.
Making matters much worse is the comedy relief, three fluttering bobbleheaded fairies played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple. Of the dozen or so jokes they were given — including throwing flour, fidgeting with blue butterflies, and lots of ditzy cluelessness — only about two ever land a hit as the others fizzle into oblivion. Their heads are digitally cut and pasted onto little pixy bodies in a terrifying special effect right out of 2002. Another noteworthy side character is Maleficent’s henchman Diaval, a shapeshifting crow. He’s played by Sam Riley, who bears so much resemblance to another feminine-featured fantasy hero that his Rent-a-Bloom tag is showing.
Even Jolie, an Academy Award-winning actress, struggles. Aside from a few sequences of giddy delight as she hams it up, Jolie has the loosest grasp on the shoddy material. Her tortured screams early in the movie are especially cringey and in need of some overdubbing. Much of her role is about holding uncomfortable poses for dramatically long periods of time in forests, behind bushes, hovering with her wings high above the clouds, or in Stefan’s lifeless castle. and speaking of poor Stefan, this guy is simply the worst. First he snubs his lady and then the flubs roll one after another: he starts a pointless war, marries another lady, ditches his baby in a forest, spends more time burning spindles than being a father, and then he tries to kill Maleficent after she’s saved the day. This character literally does nothing right for an entire movie.
What irks me most about Maleficent is the dangerous branding that Disney is imposing on its vintage franchises. The premise here is that the evil sorceress isn’t all that evil; in fact, she’s the hero who’s been misunderstood all these years. By recasting the villain as the hero, Disney is invalidating its own movies.
What’s next, a movie about a gentle wildlife enthusiast who heads deep into the woods to shoot a deer to feed his starving family? They could call it Bambi Killer.