“Maleficent” seems scared of itself. There is a dark beauty that occasionally escapes, only to be squashed by clumsy and completely unnecessary attempts at humor. This is not to say that the movie had no business trying to be funny, but rather that the tone of the jokes is all wrong. They went for slapstick, even though the material is screaming for a dry wit. There is a movie to be had here, but the film plays out like a teen Elsa locked up in her castle: it’s eager to please, but lacks the confidence to stand on its own. This is not the only thing “Maleficent” has in common with “Frozen,” but we’re not about the spoil the other one.
The story is “Sleeping Beauty” in a parallel universe. Maleficent is a fairy that lives in the enchanted moors with a wealth of fantastical creatures. One day she meets a boy named Stefan from the nearby kingdom. Though the humans and woodland creatures stay away from each other, they become friends, and ultimately more than that as they grow older, but Stefan (played as an adult by Sharlto Copley) thirsts for the throne and, knowing the king’s desire to conquer the moors and exploit its untold riches in gems, leverages his boyhood romance with Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) in order to betray her – he cuts off her wings – and succeeds the king upon his death. When Stefan and his wife have a baby girl, an embittered Maleficent exacts her revenge: she places a curse on the baby that will cause her to fall into an endless sleep on her 16th birthday. Stefan entrusts three pixies (long story) to take care of daughter Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) and to hide her away until after she turns 16, thus outlasting Maleficent’s curse, but Maleficent finds her rather quickly, and watches her from the shadows. Before long, Maleficent finds herself serving as Aurora’s unofficial guardian (the pixies are idiots, basically), even saving her life on more than one occasion. Maleficent eventually grows fond of Aurora, and this, naturally, complicates things.
The rules look as though they’re being invented on the spot. Maleficent curses baby Aurora at her formal introduction, then adds a proviso after Stefan begs her for mercy. Maleficent intends for it to be a trick, but anyone who knows the story will only see it as a loophole. The pixies pull a similar stunt when they morph into human form while they raise Aurora. Head pixie Knotgrass (a slumming Imelda Staunton) just announces it, along with a few other things, and the other two pixies just go along with it. These moments are all clearly for the audience’s benefit, and they are momentum killers of the highest order. They may as well have written the rules on the screen in bullet points.
Indeed, the pixies are momentum killers whenever they appear on screen. They are meant to be the film’s comic relief, but their scenes do not fit with anything around them. It could have worked, had they avoided the physical humor and gone for something both cerebral and daft (think Rebel Wilson in “Bridesmaids”). Alas, they went for food fights and indoor rain, and failed.
The CGI is another sticking point, for two reasons. The pixies are a bit too close to the characters in Robert Zemeckis’ CGI films, looking both lifelike and creepy. The bigger problem is the sheer busyness of the money shots. Between the frenetic camerawork and the volume of creatures to ogle, each scene becomes overloaded.
The film’s biggest flaw, though, is that every character, even the major ones, is underwritten. Maleficent obviously gets the lion’s share of character development, but even she is underserved, while Stefan’s primary emotions are greed and paranoia, ostensibly to make him easier to dislike. Fanning has no choice but to play Aurora as a moon-eyed innocent – and to be fair, that’s exactly what she is – but there is very little digging underneath the surface, across the board. The story hits some powerful emotional chords along the way, but they don’t carry the impact that they were capable of.
Imagine someone reading the book “Wicked” and then plotting how they could do the same with Maleficent, and you’d have something close to “Maleficent.” There is certainly another side of the Sleeping Beauty story to be told, but it looks as though the idea of Disney villains as the next franchise opportunity overtook all efforts to make a solid, stand-alone film. One was well within their grasp, though.