PLOT: Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" reimagined, with a focus on villainess Maleficent, who curses baby Aurora to a dastardly fate only to regret the decision once she becomes her guardian and surrogate mother.
REVIEW: With MALEFICENT, Disney takes most of the bite out of "Sleeping Beauty" in order to turn it into a treacly fantasy about maternal love and female empowerment. There's nothing wrong with those themes, of course, but this defanging ultimately turns a movie that has more than a few compelling moments of edgy darkness into something more predictably palatable for the whole family. It's probably too much to ask Disney to be subversive, but they have all the goods here and they end up just missing the mark.
The "goods" are actually embodied by Angelina Jolie, who was born to play a wicked witch. It has been ages since I've actually seen her on the big screen (seriously, what the hell was the last movie she was in?) and in that time I've forgotten what an alluring presence she can be. In MALEFICENT's best scenes, Jolie overpowers the entirety of the CG world around her, her intoxicating eyes the only visual effect the movie requires. If the film had allowed the character to be sinister, Jolie would be turning a classic character into her own - it would be unforgettable. But that's not the case.
No, MALEFICENT reimagines the "Sleeping Beauty" tale and its villain to such a degree that we're only really privy to Jolie playing up Maleficent's wicked side for less than a 1/4 of the running time. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton has given Maleficent a backstory filled with anger and sorrow, a tender, motherly side and an opponent who is 100 times worse than she is. In other words, Maleficent has been turned into the most unlikely Disney Princess ever.
After a prologue that sees Maleficent as a young, winged fairy who falls in love with a peasant named Stefan, we become aware of the reason for her transformation into vengeful baddie: Stefan, now an adult and thirsting after the the throne, drugs her and cuts off her wings in a display of loyalty to the king. Years later, Maleficent crashes King Stefan's celebration of his baby girl's birth and curses the child to fall into a deathlike sleep on her 16th birthday. The father has the baby, named Aurora, sent away to live in the woods with a trio of silly fairies, while Maleficent bides her time and watches over Aurora as she grows.
But Maleficent's watchfulness unexpectedly turns her into a guardian; now a teenager (played by Elle Fanning, perfectly acceptable), Aurora encounters Maleficent and befriends her, spending most of her days playing amidst the goofy forest creatures and CG splendor while Maleficent's stoney heart gradually softens. Maleficent realizes her mistake and tries to lift the curse, but to no avail - and when the inevitable occurs and Aurora becomes sleeping beauty, the quest to find her "true love's kiss" begins.
MALEFICENT was directed by Robert Stromberg, a production designer on ALICE IN WONDERLAND and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. It's heartening to see that this film is much better than those two eyesores, if only by virtue of a moodier atmosphere and less inane clutter. That's not to say MALEFICENT isn't crowded with CG every step of the way - each frame is filled to the brim with digital plants, beasts, flakes, sunbeams, thorns, etc. It's almost as if Stromberg and his team couldn't bear it if there was one inch of negative space. However, it can't be denied that the film is quite often lovely to look at. Stromberg's years working on other people's greenscreens (he won an Oscar for AVATAR, a fact that is plainly obvious here) ably prepared him for his debut, and if what you're looking for is pure visual dazzle, you absolutely get it here. Dean Semler's cinematography is also captivating, and the 3D format is put to very good use. (These days I always judge a 3D movie by how much my eyes begin to bother me, and never did they once during MALEFICENT.)
But it's MALEFICENT's wavering tone that solidifies it more as visual treat than fully satisfying movie. Disney needs its sidekicks and comedy relief, so we get too many scenes where the three protective fairies bicker and make a mess of things, while the forest is inhabited by all manner of stuffed animal-ready creatures that simply look ridiculous and out of sorts with their surroundings. But you match those scenes against the ones where King Stefan, now a paranoid madman (played way over-the-top by Sharlto Copley), spits bile and vows death upon Maleficent, and the movie seems like it's being made by two different people. These darker sequences are more intriguing than the standard magical forest tropes, suggesting Disney had notions of fully diving into the grim possibilities inherent in the story. Alas, the gloomy sections sit uncomfortably beside the cutesy stuff.
Still, MALEFICENT has just enough going for it: Jolie is a magnetic presence, and Stromberg proves capable of providing stimulating sights. The finale gives us an apocalyptic showdown between Maleficent and Stefan (complete with a fire-breathing dragon, naturally) that is rousing and vivid enough to be considered too intense for the younger ones. And the runtime is a merciful 97 minutes, hence it moves along at an agreeable pace and doesn't overstay its welcome. It's just too bad it feels like its own wings have been clipped by a studio not willing to push the envelope just a little bit further.