Maleficent is a live action reimagining of Disney’s classic animated film Sleeping Beauty that places the villain of that piece, the bad fairy Maleficent, in the role of protagonist and central character. It promises to tell not only the story of Sleeping Beauty from this alternative point of view but also to give us insight into the character of Maleficent and her storied past. This is an intriguing concept and one not without challenges, after all how do you go about taking an irredeemably evil antagonist from a much loved fairytale and turn them into a protagonist while still keeping the story in tact? Well if you’re Disney you simply say “screw that” and then don’t bother trying.
Yes unfortunately Disney have decided to tell only the most empty of stories and it’s made extra disappointing by the fact that they come so close to exploring the depth of characters or plot so much of the time yet in each of these instances they abruptly turn away from that route and opt for inconsequential scenes that do little to further what is left of the ‘story’. I can’t help but feel that this is largely to do with Disney’s frankly bizarre choice of director. Robert Stromberg has a very impressive resume if you’re looking for a visual effects designer, and this shows as Maleficent is simply stunning; a veritable feast for the eyes – however this is literally the only directing credit he has to his name and that also shows.
In a magical faraway kingdom (where most people are Scottish, some are Irish and our heroes speak with easy to understand English accents) Maleficent as a child meets a young human boy and falls in love at a remarkably inappropriate age. As will be the modus operandi for this film, we are made aware of this thanks to a narrator filling the audience in and not through any kind of dialogue or character development. In fact the film seems so eager to show us the Maleficent we will recognise from the old animated film that they forget to give the younger Maleficent any kind of character, development or even dialogue. We are told, through expository dialogue, that Maleficent and her young love, Stefan both lost their parents when they were very young but this is mentioned just once and seems to inform nothing else within the movie and is not elaborated on any further. Fast forward a few years and the two profess their love for one another (via narration) shortly before Stefan simply stops coming back to visit. “Why ever could that be?” I hear you ask, “surely this is an interesting development that will affect both characters and their interactions further into the story!” Well quit wondering about those pesky details; if Disney knows they’re not telling.
Skip forward perhaps another ten years and at the behest of his king, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who is now inexplicably the king’s hand servant, returns to the moors to find Maleficent (now in the form of Angelina Jolie) and kill her. Again no dialogue is exchanged between the two. Now correct me if I’m wrong, ladies but if your boyfriend of many years up and left for a decade without word and then returned just as suddenly I’m pretty sure you’d at least ask him where the hell he’d been and I’m betting you wouldn’t just cuddle up next to a river in silence whilst a narrator told you everything was sweet. Guess which of those options Stromberg and Disney opted for.
Long story short; Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent but betrays her all the same cutting off her wings to trick the king into thinking he had. Now credit where it’s due: this is actually a much better back story for why Maleficent goes on to be such a mole than simply because she didn’t get invited to a baby’s christening but it could have been so much more powerful and engaging had we already been shown some of who these characters were, and in turn gained a sense of what drove them to do what they were doing . As it stands when Maleficent arrives at the christening of (now King) Stefan’s firstborn daughter, the princess Aurora, the lines she delivers are the practically the first lines she’s spoken as an adult in the entire movie (apart from a couple of commands screamed on the battlefield earlier in the film). It’s great that those lines are dripping with *ahem* malice and they do set the tone for this new Mal’ perfectly but Maleficent is the central character in this story and the one we’re meant to be rooting for so it’s concerning that she only speaks once she’s turned evil and not a moment before.
Continuing on from this point the film is plagued by the same issues: bland, characterless characters do things just because that’s what they do, the middle of the film is a series of largely inconsequential scenes that show off the brilliant visuals but do nothing for the story, and the final act undoes just about everything that makes Sleeping Beauty a classic (Case in point: instead of falling to sleep for 100 years Aurora takes a half hour nap).
I can’t help feeling that Maleficent was probably once a great screenplay that has suffered from the same Hollywood treatment that gave us 2010′s Robin Hood and it has enough almost-good ideas to support that case, but in the end this film is like a model with a low IQ and a drinking problem; it’s great to look at but there is simply nothing behind the pretty exterior save for a few squandered opportunities and disjointed ideas.