Maleficent Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley. Directed by Robert Stromberg. Rated PG. Now playing.
When is a villain not a villain? Disney’s Maleficent answers that question all too effectively, turning the title character, the memorably menacing antagonist of beloved animated Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, into a tortured hero who has a single moment of weakness. Like so many modern blockbusters, Maleficent devotes much of its running time to an overly detailed origin story, filling in details that don’t need to be filled in and offering up a specific motivation to correspond to all of the main character’s actions later in the movie.
In Maleficent’s case, those motivations come from being spurned by Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who eventually becomes king of the human realm thanks to his betrayal of the fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). She subsequently curses his daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) with the familiar refrain (on her 16th birthday she will fall into a deep sleep that can only be broken by true love’s kiss), but then feels totally bad about it and becomes sort of a surrogate mother for Aurora (who is raised by a trio of ditzy fairies posing as her aunts).
The result is that Maleficent is barely ever scary or evil, and Jolie spends most of her performance looking vaguely pained, albeit with really cool prosthetic cheekbones and fabulous flowing outfits. With its emphasis on overexplanation, Maleficent takes nearly half the movie just to get to the actual story of Sleeping Beauty, and then rushes through its most well-known plot points. Instead of replicating classic Disney magic, Maleficent feels more like one of the CGI-cluttered fairy tale retellings of recent years, not much different from Mirror, Mirror or Snow White and the Huntsman or Jack the Giant Slayer or Red Riding Hood.
Jolie seems to relish the role of the devious schemer, and when she actually gets to scheme deviously, she’s fun to watch. Since Maleficent is no longer the story’s villain, that role falls to Copley as King Stefan, but his motivations are as murky as Maleficent’s are overstated. And Fanning, playing the ostensible main character of the original story, does little more than smile beatifically. Any meaningful new approach to the story is abandoned for a rote action climax, which is once again drowned in garish CGI. Completely freed from her reputation as a villain, Maleficent gets a perfect Disney happy ending. The audience, however, isn’t likely to be as satisfied.