Beware, children, when rehabilitating a cartoon villain, or updating a beloved fantasy story. For you tread on treacherous ground, and successful completion of your quest is far from certain.
Behold Maleficent, the "true story" behind Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty, and the lesson not learned from Disney's previous similar outings, Oz the Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland. Unless the lesson is: Throw enough theme-park spectacle at audiences and you don't need to bother with any of that "character" or "story" nonsense, and definitely spin it in 3D so you can tack a premium on the ticket price.
Maleficent — the first film from, ahem, visual-effects-artist-turned-director Robert Stromberg — seems primarily concerned with being its own pop-up coffee table book of production design than anything approaching satisfying fantasy drama. It feels like a highlight reel from a three-movie epic.
Check out all the "good parts"! Without any of that tedious motivation and character development.
That epic battle about 15 minutes into the film? I presume that was intended to be the dramatic and exciting climax of the first film in a Maleficent trilogy, once we understood the beef between humans and fairies. Instead, there's a random human king, about whom we know nothing, leading an attack against the fairy realm. Why? Something something something ancient hatreds.
Humans are just terrible creatures, greedy and envious, and their king is a meanie. The fairies are kind and gentle and trust one another and don't even need anyone to rule them.
That lazy simplicity is supposed to be excusable, I guess, because this is "for kids." But I suspect even they will notice such muddled world-building and confused motives.
If the fairies don't need a leader, why don't they care when Maleficent sets herself up as their queen? (Angelina Jolie is fab as the vampy witch fairy. It's a shame the movie lets her down.) Why is human Stefan (Sharlto Copley) so horrifically awful to his fairy friend Maleficent after being so sweet to her? Why do three "nice" fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) turn their backs on their homeland in order to raise little human baby Aurora (Elle Fanning), apparently as a favor to the cruel Stefan? How come, if Maleficent casts a nasty revenge spell on the baby, but later casts another spell to revoke it when she learns the error of her vindictive ways, it doesn't stay revoked?
Scratch the surface and it gets more disturbing, reeking of an homage to 1950s attitudes about which we should not be nostalgic. Stefan becomes the human king when he betrays Maleficent. The previous king (Kenneth Cranham) has a daughter (Hannah New), but she doesn't get to be queen in her own right, but only by being married off to Stefan.
Contrast dutiful daughter and wife, though, with spurned lover ... which is what Maleficent was to Stefan, who had claimed to be her true love before he abandoned her and tortured her. Instead of boiling a bunny, Maleficent turns her rage on Stefan's daughter when she should have cursed him, the bastard. Disney's new Princess of Darkness doesn't warrant much of a feminist sort of vindication, it would seem.
And don't get me started on the ending, which is some fairy-ist bigotry — Oooo! Look! A dragon!