Only twice does Maleficent, Disney’s pseudo-prequel to 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, elicit anything mildly profound. Both instances involve the eponymous anti-heroine’s (Angelina Jolie) curious relationship with Aurora, the soon-to-be-snoozing princess played by various actors at various life stages (including Vivienne Jolie-Pitt and, eventually, Elle Fanning), and who, thanks to writer Linda Woolverton’s script-flipping, comes to view Maleficent as her “fairy godmother.” Watched from afar by the same woman who vengefully cursed her at birth (Maleficent and Aurora’s pop, Stefan, had a puppy-love fling that didn’t end well), the blissfully ignorant princess first encounters her supposed foe as a toddler, sneaking away from the incompetent fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) charged to stealthily raise her, and fearlessly touching Maleficent’s horns. It’s a striking moment sure to conjure a familiar sense of wonder in longtime Disney fans, and later, as Aurora nears her fateful 16th birthday, she remains unfazed—and untainted by any learned prejudice—when finally speaking to the cloaked figure who, in spite of herself, becomes Aurora’s surrogate mom. At both points, Aurora simply has questions: What are these horns? Who is this woman? What’s her story?
Sadly, Maleficent’s exploration of the answers to these questions, which is indeed billed as the film’s reason for being, is part of a beastly spectacle that encapsulates the awfulness of Hollywood’s current tent-pole mentality. Anyone who knows anything about the iconic title character—or etymology, for that matter—will likely balk at the start of the origin story in the opening act, which introduces the brunette beauty as a winged, eco-friendly fairy (played in youth by Ella Purnell), before dropping her name via sprightly voiceover narration. The movie absurdly ignores the fact that “Maleficent,” beyond suggesting a hybrid of “malevolent” and “magnificent,” is a word that means “doing evil or harm,” a detail that clearly got in the way of an attempt to give this formidable diva a saintly, spotless past. Directed by Robert Stromberg, a special-effects artist who worked on Avatar and indistinguishable CG vomitoriums like Oz the Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent is further proof of the bald-faced, just-for-the-money futility so common in the padding and revamping of established genre brands.
It’s also the most egregious case in recent memory of a movie failing to respect its central, invaluable asset. Complete with cheekbone implants that aptly evoke Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” look, Jolie, an uncannily breathtaking creature herself, is ferociously captivating as Maleficent, her varying, nature-inspired collars and headpieces encasing a milky, flawless face marked by scarlet lips and glowing irises. The role isn’t exactly demanding (though Jolie knows just the fab, dragon-lady key in which to play it), but the aesthetic might of the actress in character is so grand that Stromberg’s wont to muddy the film with Candyland-ish excess feels like an insult to her. It’s clear that Jolie was attracted to the maternal and feminist aspects of the project, but Stromberg tries his damnedest to bury her amid an incongruous mélange of tree warriors, glowing sprites, mud-slinging toad thingies, and markedly mobile flora—stuff to which many viewers have undoubtedly become uncomfortably numb.
And, of course, the all-too-common too-muchness on display spills over into the narrative, which, beyond its glut of plot holes and contradictions (Maleficent becomes a dark tyrant the moment she learns Stefan chose nasty power over their love), gets dizzy-drunk on ensuring the new tale is stocked with the staples of the animated classic. This results in Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) getting a whopping—and worthless—five minutes or so of screen time, and the three “good fairies,” native to Maleficent’s realm, shifting allegiances with the breeze. All of this effectively deflates Maleficent’s climactic emergence as a black-sheened beacon of feminine power, which, however glorious to behold, is an afterthought the film couldn’t care less about assessing. The goal, as expressed in treacly shots of Maleficent hovering above sunlit clouds like an angel, is to strip this beloved villainess of every iota of impurity, thus making her safe and accessible to today’s preposterously sheltered and aggressively deluded youth. We may have all wanted to know the story behind those famed horns, but the mystery was far preferable to having Maleficent defanged and declawed in the process.