Review: “Maleficent”

Angelina Jolie stars in "Maleficent," Disney's revision of its classic "Sleeping Beauty," here reviewed by film critic JJ Perkins.In sports, there is nothing as singularly saddening as watching a fiery and determined star athlete try to singlehandedly save a game—or a season—from the failings of the lackluster team around them. Kobe Bryant puts up 40-point games almost just to spite the mediocrity he has recently been forced to deal with; Tom Brady throws a hissy fit on the sidelines after his receivers fail to put forth the effort required to break coverage or actually touch a football; and the Texas’ Rangers’ Yu Darvish lacks proper run support so often that I cringe and shout as if I’m embodying a supercut of Nicolas Cage acting highlights. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Maleficent, the latest filmic example of Disney mining its own pass for limply gothic blockbusters. The movie suffers from the same plight as the Rangers: it boasts an ace performer with no run support.

The plot of Maleficent is most easily summed up by the very buzzy logline “It’s Wicked but for Sleeping Beauty.” The movie opens with narration that insists that the classic tale we were all told as children was wildly incorrect, begging the question: “If Maleficent is really the victim-turned-hero of the story, how in the hell did this classic tale get so misconstrued?” All the original Sleeping Beauty story-beats are retrofitted here.

Despite the awkwardness of this premise, Angelina Jolie’s presence as the titular fairy—apparently Maleficent is a fairy, one of many unnecessary pieces of backstory with which the movie re-contextualizes Sleeping Beauty—is posh and magnetic and delicious. The one scene that really works takes place in the great hall during the celebration of Aurora’s (Elle Fanning) birth in which the infamous cursing happens. And it works entirely because of Jolie, who commands the audience form low, powerful angles. We wait with baited breath for Maleficent to rain despair upon the aristocratic heads. Jolie knows how to do camp, fusing the cartoony nature of her character with a theatrical forcefulness. She’s simultaneously menacing and delightful, recalling original bitchy camp queen Bette Davis.  

It’s a shame, then, that this really fun five minutes is sandwiched between 15 minutes of expositional drudgery and over an hour of the most expensive table-setting episode of Once Upon a Time ever produced. The lavish visuals make for the kind of sugary spectacle that is eye-catching and enticing for young viewers, but they never congeal into a coherent shot, calling attention to the fact that the physical lens is seeing mostly green screens. Any time the camera leaves Jolie, whose fabulous makeup and prosthetics are done by Rick Baker, it fails to find worthy substitutes, producing technically excessive but aesthetically redundant images.

Even worse, the movie contains a legitimately interesting outline for what Maleficent could have been—a rebuttal and reconsideration of the reductive gender politics of the original Sleeping Beauty—but doesn’t see this through in the execution phase. Writer Linda Woolverton explains Maleficent’s “evil” actions as those of a victim of a great trauma; after her wings are stolen by her one-time love and the eventual king (Sharlto Copley), an act staged as a metaphor for sexual assault, she tries to reclaim her powers. Later, Maleficent actually becomes a mother figure to Aurora instead of a menacing demon that inexplicably wishes the girl harm. The blandly conceived prince is played for laughs instead of saving the day in the third act as he does in Sleeping Beauty.

Unfortunately, director Robert Stromberg and writer Woolverton don’t do the work needed to make aspects of the film’s revision of gender dynamics wholly successful. Specifically, they use the “tell don’t show” ethos of the initial narration for the brunt of the film’s characterization of Maleficent and Aurora’s relationship. This leads to a collection of scenes in which the audience is practically directly addressed about Aurora and Maleficent’s love each other. But we never really see this love manifested in the movie’s situations, and this leads to hollow platitudes about the power of love without the proper visual evidence to back them up. Thus, the movie’s attempts at female empowerment often feel more conceptual than organically integrated into the narrative.

If you’re looking for nuance in Maleficent, you’re going to have to find it in Jolie’s performance alone. Both preserving her character’s mystique and overflowing with passion and bedeviling humor, Jolie commands the screen. Maleficent will be remembered as her movie, through and through.