After a king and his queen failed to invite the powerful Maleficent to their baby's christening, the vindictive fairy casts an unbreakable curse, dooming the child to a sleep-like death. This is the famous story known to all, but Maleficent reveals the origins of this powerful enchantress and her true motivation for casting her cruel spell, showing that even the darkest evil has the potential for redemption.
There's a whole lot of wrong with this movie, but there's one thing that got undeniably, indisputably right: casting Angelina Jolie as the mercurial Maleficent. She looks the part to perfection, her natural cheekbones enhanced to give her a supernatural beauty both fierce and refined. In the beginning, Maleficent is a wild bird of prey, a comparison enhanced by enormous golden eagle wings that can mow down an entire phalanx with a single swoop. As the protector of the Moors, the fairy kingdom, she is dangerous, but dressed in leather and natural fibers she has a touch of the Earth Mother to her. When her wings are taken away, Maleficent goes into mourning, and wears nothing but black. This sinister, evil queen is the iconic Maleficent we remember from the 1959 Sleeping Beauty animated feature, and never is she more magnificent than when she casts her curse upon the Princess Aurora. But as Maleficent bides her time, waiting for the day the curse will be fulfilled, small patches of color return to her costume, hinting that the protective spirit of her past may yet live.
Maleficent's powers are rather poorly defined. She rarely uses magic when she has her wings, preferring to fight directly with fist and with feather. Yet in the short time between the loss of her wings and the christening of Aurora, Maleficent has become a sorceress of unparalleled power. Did she always have this kind of magic, or did she acquire it later? If so, how did she learn to cast such powerful spells? I wish the film had spent more time on this period of her life, as she consolidates her power in the Moors. The movie could have also explained her connection to the Moors a little better, too. Maleficent's moods seem to control the weather in the magic kingdom; again, who is she that she is so much more powerful than any of the other magical creatures?
But no matter. She's Maleficent, and she's magnificent. Beautiful, powerful, and perfect. Major props to Angelina Jolie for creating a character worthy of the 1959 original, and even surpassing that great Maleficent with her additions to the character. Whenever she's on the screen, I'm hypnotized.
If only the rest of the movie worked as well.
The story does its best to reduce Maleficent to trite predictability. Girl meets boy, girl falls in love, girl's heart is broken, girl becomes a super-villain. Sound familiar? It should! This has become Disney's formula. In Once Upon a Time, why does Regina become the Evil Queen? Her heart is broken by the death of her stablehand boyfriend. Why did Theodora become the Wicked Witch of the West in The Great and Powerful Oz? Broken heart. Just once, can't a powerful woman be wicked just because she wants to be? Why is the catalyst always rejection or loss of a man?
One would expect that a man capable of attracting and betraying Maleficent, as King Stefan does, would equal her in charisma and appeal. True, Stefan manages to maneuver his way to the throne despite his peasant birth. An actor with a great presence might have been able to sell such an improbable origin, but Sharto Copley isn't up to the task. Copley's accent (Scottish, I think?) sounds fake and forced, and at times Stefan sounds like he's trying to talk through a mouthful of marbles. His Stefan is a weak man blinded by ambition. As he descends into paranoia, awaiting Maleficent and her terrible curse, it's hard to believe that some noble or another didn't overthrow such a bad king.
Stefan may be bad, but at least he's not the worst. That dubious honor belongs to the three pixies charged with raising Aurora: Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Leslie Manville). They are so annoying. Three incompetent nincompoops. The three pixies know nothing about raising a human child – at one point, they decide to feed infant Aurora by dropping raw carrots on the edge of her crib. They don't have distinguishable personalities. They're just fussy, whiny, flighty maiden aunts-types. I don't know why the writers made the decision to make them so useless. Sure, in the original the fairies are a bit silly, because they don't really know how to raise a child either, but they are capable and they figure it out! This makes them easy targets for Maleficent's pranks – providing some of the rare humor in the show – and exceptionally poor guardians for Stefan's daughter. Why on earth did he entrust Aurora to them? Again, he's a bad king, but they are annoying, pointless characters.
Thank goodness for Elle Fanning as Aurora and Sam Riley as Diaval. Fanning brings fresh-faced charm to the princess, all the more striking in the dour and lifeless world she lives in. Sam Riley, meanwhile, brings much-needed humor as Maleficent's right-hand man. He's an ideal henchman, protecting and serving his mistress well while amusing her with well-timed quips and backtalk.
But the story! Oh, the story.
The twist ending might have worked if another recent Disney movie hadn't done the exact same thing. But the other movie did it better, so it feels utterly contrived and cheapens Maleficent's glory, as does most of the epic final fight.
There's a certain beauty to the fairies and magical creatures that live in the Moors, but it's that same fakey computer-generated background that we see in Oz the Great and Powerful and Once Upon a Time. I mean, the rendering is vastly superior to those two examples, but it's still an incredibly sterile environment for Maleficent to inhabit. When she's crackling with so much power and restrained energy, her world just looks even paler by comparison.
It is strange to me that as I watched this movie, countless problems and flaws jumped out at me – but I still enjoyed it. It was entertaining and fun, and this I credit to the pure magnetism of Angelina Jolie's performance. She's amazing. I'd watch her again and again.
But Jolie is definitely a 10.