I'm a bit confused as to why this film even exists, but it's not because I don't believe in retelling a classic animated fairy tale as live action works—albeit told from the perspective of its dark and mysterious villain. And I don't even mind that the writers of MALEFICENT gave the evil queen (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie, with more severe cheeks than she has in real life thanks to some subtle prosthetics) a backstory that explains why Maleficent had it out for Sleeping Beauty, her family and their kingdom. I guess the elements of this movie that kept me scratching my head was why they felt the need to surgically remove nearly all traces of Maleficent's evil nature and have her become something of a stepmother and role model for the pre-sleeping Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Clearly influenced by the WICKED template of taking a classic "evil" character and showing how she started out so loving and became so full of hate, MALEFICENT follows the life of the winged fairy (who has feathered wings, rather than the other fairy characters who sport insect-like wings), acting as something of the guardian of the woods in her younger years. Her magical kingdom sits adjacent to a human kingdom, from which a young man named Stefan comes to visit her, and the two seem to start something of a courtship. But when his father, the king, is injured attempting to invade Maleficent's realm, he tells his soldiers that whoever kills her will become the new king. Still having feelings for Maleficent, Stefan drugs her and clips her wings, bringing them as proof of her death, thus making him the new king (played by Sharlto Copley as an adult).
When the new king and his wife have their first child, Maleficent comes out of hiding, fully bitter and enraged at the human world as a whole, particularly at King Stefan and his family, and the well-known sleeping curse is placed on baby Aurora—needle prick puts her in a death-like sleep, true love's kiss, the whole nine. The king then sends his still-infant daughter to a remote location with three fairies (played in miniaturized form by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) sworn to protect the girl. Naturally, Maleficent finds the girl, but rather than simply kill her or kidnap her, she secretly raises her and begins to realize (perhaps too late) that the girl is so hopelessly good and pure that to curse her in such a way would be cruel.
There's a line delivered by the film's unseen narrator (Janet McTeer) near the end of the movie that essentially says, "See, not everything you've heard about this story is true," which the filmmakers must have inserted as a means of excusing the radical plot and character changes that have been made. But when adjusting such a well known story, the question should be asked everything a significant deviation is written: Does this change make the story better? And without fail, the answer is consistently "No" in MALEFICENT. Still worse, these changes appear to have been made because they could, and not to improve an admittedly straight-forward, not-especially-original plot. I actually like some of the backstory ideas, but even they start to lose sense when Stefan simply turns against this exotic creature whom he has grown quite close to, as if a missing scene between his father and him exists that would explain why he would suddenly care about being king and respected by his father.
There's no doubt that the film has been art directed and CGI'd to death, almost to the point where huge portions of what is shown on screen looks animated rather than photo-real. First-time feature director Robert Stromberg (the Oscar-winning art director of James Cameron's AVATAR and Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND) is handy with a green screen, but seems utterly lost when it comes to instructing his actors on giving us some emotional substance to cling to. Most of the character development and personality traits seem to come to life almost accidentally in the hands of gifted actors like Jolie and Fanning. As far as her performance goes, Jolie mostly shifts between mean face and sinister smiley face, which really shows off her stunning teeth, but doesn't give us a whole lot to work with. Still, she occasionally lets loose with a few lines of well-delivered dialogue that gives us some idea of where he head and heart are at.
Once the "sleeping" part of the Sleeping Beauty legend kicks is, the filmmakers apparently felt the need to keep the surprises coming by changing up all sort of things unnecessarily. Don't be fooled by the third-act introduction of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites), who may or may not be the answer to all of Aurora's problems. Nothing is quite as it seems where this movie is concerned, and that's rarely a good thing. One of MALEFICENT's few bright spots is the fleshing out (literally) of the character of Diaval, the evil queen's pet bird, who she transforms into a man (Sam Riley) whenever she needs someone to talk to, or into other animals depending on what the situation requires. While neither the dramatic nor comic (nor romantic) possibilities of Diaval aren't fully explored, at least Riley has a bit of fun playing the devoted pet.
A few random points: It felt like about 80 percent of MALEFICENT takes place in dark or shaded locations, so spending the extra money to watch it in 3-D would be a colossal waste of your money. Also, I had to double-check what the rating was on this film (it's PG), because there are a few moments in the film that are surprisingly shocking and scary—not gory, but still, having a young woman get her giant wings cut off while she's asleep is fairly devastating stuff, and her resulting screams could easily upset the PG set. Disney was handed a gift when they avoided a PG-13 rating on this one.
MALEFICENT feels scattered, slapped together and not nearly as emotionally sound as it needs to be to successfully blend fantasy with the kind of family drama that it seems to aspire to become. There's no denying that the visuals are often rich and creative, but they are just as often flat and uninspired. Jolie doesn't work enough in a given year for us not to be a little extra disappointed that she's in a film that simply can't keep up with her effort. The film is an exercise in frustration because it's easy to see that there is something great just out of reach, and the closer they get, the more frustrating the experience of watching MALEFICENT becomes. In the end, people will talk about costumes and scenery when they discuss this work, and very little will be said about heart and soul. That's because the film is a confused, wayward reworking of a great fairy tale, ruined by committee--a real shame if you think about it.