Maleficent is Disney’s latest attempt to mine its revered cartoon canon for tales that can be adapted into live-action gold. It’s not the most successful of business models – for every Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland, which banked over $1billion worldwide, there’s a chaotic and awkwardly performed Snow White and The Huntsman or a wacky and garish Mirror, Mirror. Maleficent, unfortunately, falls into the latter category, its rushed plot and unrefined characterization squandering a spellbinding lead performance by Angelina Jolie.
Linda Woolverton’s clumsy re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty’s iconic villainess sees a young, button-nosed Maleficent presented as an earthy Mother Theresa figure who sleeps among the trees and uses her powers to heal a snapped twig. She soon falls in love with a for-some-reason-Irish farm boy named Stefan who suddenly disappears only to return years later and slice off her wings to curry favour with his dying king.
This clunky love story is poorly handled as first-time director Robert Stromberg skips over the key emotional beats of their relationship. We therefore struggle to understand the full depths of Maleficent’s sense of betrayal and as a consequence her transformation from benevolent queen to a wicked sorcerer who famously sentences Stefan’s innocent baby daughter Aurora to a sleep-like death feels sudden and not fully justified.
Yet it appears that Stromberg and Woolverton were aware of this problem as they try to compensate for the lack of storytelling by stuffing the first act with exposition-loaded dialogue (“So, he betrayed me to be king.”) and awful fairy-tale narration to explain what we really should be able to see.
Things fails to improve as we zip into the future where a now 15-year-old Aurora is safely ensconced in a rundown cottage with her triumvirate of irritatingly quarrelsome pixies while Maleficent watches from the shadows.
This middle third is caught between two tones as Woolverton tries to remain faithful to the classic 1959 cartoon whilst imbuing the story with a modern darker edge. An attempt at slapstick comedy where Maleficent tricks the pixies into bickering – though why she thought they needed prompting is beyond me – jars distastefully with the moody ambiance of Maleficent sulking in her kingdom and King Stefan’s Shakespearian descent into madness.
For someone who started out as an art director on big-budgeted blockbusters such as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, Stromberg has a poor handle on the special effects. In particular, early scenes of Maleficent swooping from the heavens and soaring across the luscious moors are so shonky it feels like watching a rough cut rather than the fully rendered finished product.
It is a shame because it detracts from the impressive fairy-dust sprinkled moors and its populace of cute and imaginative day-glow beasties.
With her seething eyes and angular cheekbones, Angelina Jolie certainly looks the part as the titular anti-hero and her performance strikes the perfect balance between menace and bravura as she does her best to create an engaging character out of the limited material.
The rest of the cast don’t fair quite so well, however, with Elle Fanning’s endless positivity and woodland wanderings resembling Mr Burns after longevity treatment and Sharlto Copley given nothing more to do than rant at a pair of truncated fairy wings in a wandering accent.
Why more isn’t done with their characters is a mystery because there is potential for an interesting family dynamic to be etched out of the way King Stefan, consumed by paranoia, rejects his daughter’s love in favour of obtaining vengeance.
But rather than explore these characters further, Stromberg opts for a rote military battle as any attempt to tell a fulfilling story is forgotten. The movie’s tendency to skim over the details results in an ending that feels rushed and a final resolution that, for a film that aims to subvert our expectations, feels decisively ordinary.
Runtime: 97 Minutes Genre: Fantasy/Adventure Released: 28 May 2014
Director: Robert Stromberg Writer: Helen Woolverton
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley
Click here to watch the trailer for Maleficent