There’s an abundance of visual magic but not much of any other sort in Disney’s revisionist take on the “Sleeping Beauty” villainess. “Maleficent” looks great; it constantly engages the eye with imaginative images—including Angelina Jolie, decked out with striking costume and makeup in the title role. But it’s emotionally negligible, not even carrying the heft of the 1959 animated feature it’s based on.
Like many pictures aimed at the family market today, it’s also female-centric; the male characters are either wicked or bland. As for Maleficent, she starts out as a perky young winged fairy (played by Isobelle Molloy) who becomes the guardian of the moors, a peaceful realm of unusual creatures that must constantly be on watch against intervention by greedy interlopers from the nearby human kingdom. She makes a mistake, however, in befriending Stefan (Michael Higgins), a boy from the other realm who’s found pilfering jewels in the moors one day. After a brief time together, however, they separate for years, after which Maleficent has grown into Jolie and Stefan into Sharlto Copley. He’s now the valet to the bellicose human king (Kenneth Granham) who launches an attack on the moors, only to be defeated and put on his deathbed in the process.
Seeking to become the ruler’s chosen successor, Stefan uses betrayal to gain the crown. He returns to the moors ostensibly to warn Maleficent of danger, but instead drugs her and amputates her wings, presenting them to the kin as a trophy and thereby earning the throne. Maleficent responds to her now-flightless state by taking up a magical staff and turning malevolent, transforming the moors into her dark realm and plotting vengeance on Stefan.
Here the plot takes up the memorable sequence from “Sleeping Beauty” in which Maleficent appears at the christening of Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora and pronounces her curse: at sixteen the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and be cast into a deep slumber from which she can be woken only by true love’s kiss. But in Linda Woolverton’s retelling, the three fairies transformed into peasant women (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) who are given the task of raising Aurora in seclusion are portrayed as a trio of bumbling, bickering boobs, and so Maleficent, assisted by her helper Diaval (Sam Riley)—a bird she can morph into a man, or indeed any creature she wishes—watches over the girl as she grows up, gradually bonding with her as she approaches her sixteenth birthday in the person of Elle Fanning.
Maleficent, in fact, becomes Aurora’s godmother in the true sense, but finds that she’s unable to lift the curse she’s placed on the girl. In short, we get a conflicted woman, and a conflicted young princess, too, since Aurora has come to cherish the moors and Maleficent—and when she returns to Stefan’s castle after discovering her true identity, she finds her father a dark, brooding figure intent on destroying Maleficent at any cost. Aurora also falls victim to the curse, and so Maleficent sneaks into Stefan’s castle with pretty Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites) in tow, hoping that he might provide the kiss that will awaken her. In this reimagined version of the story, of course, the real solution comes through the lips of another; but Woolverton leaves plenty of room for an action-packed (and CGI-stuffed) showdown between Maleficent and Stefan, followed by the foreordained “happily ever after” postscript.
In the world of “Frozen” and its ilk, the revised trajectory of “Maleficent” is predictable. The real villain is a man consumed by ambition and greed, which turns an amiable boy into a grasping, odious ruler. By contrast the woman who turns to the dark side after being scorned and betrayed melts as her maternal instinct kicks in and she becomes a true hero. It’s a different story from the traditional one, to be sure, and it carries narrative consequences, like the transformation of Philip into an agreeable but vacuous fellow whose role is reduced to a mere walk-on (or, since he spends so much time unconscious in a state of levitation as Maleficent carts him around, a kind of sleep-on).
The result will probably appeal to the girls who have made “Let It Go” their anthem, but the mixture of live action and CGI in “Maleficent,” though striking, can’t equal the pure animated visuals of “Frozen.” The backgrounds and vistas are magnificent in their detail and Diaval’s transformations are fine, but the critters of the moors, in particular, are an uneven lot; those that appear to be mostly animated are impressive, but the trolls and other beasties that are computer-generated have the usual phony, plastic appearance. Before their change into full-sized women, the three fairies are positively creepy, with the actresses’ faces superimposed on little CGI bodies, and the dragon into which Diaval morphs in the final scenes is kept in darkness, largely one assumes to hide the fact that it’s not all that realistic. James Newton Howard’s score, with its tinkling chimes and choral interjections, strains to add magic, especially to the moors scenes, but the effort feels forced. (The gruesome over-the-credits rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” by Lana Del Rey is even worse.)
Nor is the central section of the picture, in which Maleficent and Aurora bond, as moving as it might be. Their interaction is portrayed in a series of broad, rather perfunctory strokes, with Fanning providing little beyond generalized wide-eyed joy. And while Jolie has some fun with Maleficent, tossing off a few good lines with amusing archness, Copley is a bore as Stefan, glowering beneath a shaggy beard while shouting out commands to his passel of nondescript soldiers. Robert Stromberg, a special-effects man in his first directing job, demonstrates his expertise in the visuals, but his handling of the human elements of the story comes up short, and it leaves an emotional vacuum at the center of the movie.
In its way “Maleficent” rather resembles Ridley Scott’s 1986 “Legend.” For its day that picture was also amazing from a visual standpoint, but it too was chilly and uninvolving. Of course, it embraced the conventional boy-girl template that this one rejects, but apart from that they’re very alike. Let that be a warning to you.