The best part about Disney’s Maleficent is that it ends.
That’s not to say the movie is terrible; it isn’t. But neither is it good. Rather, it just takes up space, which is much worse.
First-time director Robert Stromberg delivers a largely unfocused, lifeless and unnecessary origin story for the popular Disney villain, filled with characters incapable of having emotionally honest reactions to scenes because the plot has no room for them.
Plot and uninspired CG set pieces are all that seem to concern screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), whose script employs a voiceover that plays less like narrative device and more like a descriptive service recapping events for the visually impaired. It’s a screenplay that devotes two chapters too many to Maleficent’s origins.
First, we get “Maleficent Begins: The Teenage Years,” featuring the once and future villain as a heroic fairy charged with protecting the Moors – a Technicolor fantasia of CG water and trees – from the kingdom of man. (Why a winged teen must protect this fantasy land when it has spear-wielding trees walking about is one of many “just go with it” concessions the story never explains or earns.)
When a boy named Stefan wanders into the Moors, he and Maleficent become friends, and then more than friends. Then, naturally, adult Stefan (played by an oddly Michael Bay-looking Sharlto Copley) sets his sights on the kingdom’s throne and leaves Mal behind.
Cue “Maleficent Begins: The Jolie Years,” as Angelina Jolie does her best to service the story in between unconvincing green-screened flying sequences and staring intently at things.
Long story less long: Man comes to take the Moors, Jolie says “no,” attacks man with the aforementioned warrior-tree things and the battle just kind of deflates into a non-ending that sends Stefan on a mission to get himself crowned king. How? By drugging her and cutting off her wings, of course!
Jolie soon dons the character’s signature black look and stalks into Stefan’s kingdom, cursing his first-born daughter Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty) to suffer an eternal sleep upon pricking her finger on a spinning wheel at age 16 – a slumber from which only true love’s kiss can awaken her.
Now starts the film’s second origin story – the first act’s mostly prologue – as we get treated to “Aurora Begins.” The movie chronicles the young girl’s journey to look like Elle Fanning before it becomes a dull Mad Lib of the animated classic’s plot, complete with three surprisingly unlikable and ditzy Fairy Godmothers charged with caring for the girl, as Maleficent looks on from afar — developing an affection for the child that leads her to see the error of her ways.
There’s a good movie to be found among this mess. Unfortunately for audiences, Stromberg doesn’t know how to find it. There’s not one choice the director makes that feels like it comes from any place of passion. There’s no hint as to why this production designer-turned-director must tell this tale.
His lack of desire and interest toward the action-heavy material is most evident in the opening battle, which plays like leftover animatics from Braveheart, The Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia films. The most jarring directorial choices are sudden zoom-ins on character’s faces. At first, they’re used to seemingly emphasize characters’ reactions to key battle moments, but then they just start happening, a lot, in rapid succession, for no reason – to the point where they border on self-parody.
Jolie does her best with what little is here, but even she can’t save the movie from its rudderless self. Casting such a lively star in such an inactive, reactive role is baffling. What life the Oscar winner brings to the material with a glance or cackle is almost entirely undone by any scene requiring her to speak more than a sentence. While Jolie seems more engaged with the material than her director, her performance lacks the spark of her previous efforts. It’s as if she’s acting in a better movie playing inside her head, and can’t be bothered to share it.
Fanning is reduced to various degrees of smiling and looking sullen, a waste of such a talented young star. And Copley suffers through a role that requires him to become a “Mad King,” having a conversation with Maleficent’s severed wings, because… that’s the type of movie this is. Full of scenes that happen because they were on the call sheet that day, void of any interesting things to say, or emotions to illicit.
Maleficent is the type of movie where the title character is so powerful that she can turn a bird into a man, then back into a bird, then into a dragon – but she can’t restore her wings? It’s the type of movie where fairies are called pixies in one scene, then fairies again in another, without ever bothering to account for why the distinction between the two – or explain why good fairy-turned-evil fairy has a rivalry with her own kind. (Then again, if those fairies were as annoying and one-note as the ones played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville, I’d despise them too.)
If Maleficent is successful at anything, it’s this: It doubles down on this summer’s failure to give audiences emotionally resonate films based on established property – save for X-Men: Days of Future Past. It reinforces the need for that which it can’t provide – better product based on intellectual property – and reminds us that zero creative executives know how to light our way to that end, because they all are perpetually in the dark.
Disney’s Maleficent opens today nationwide.