It’s always been my personal opinion that Walt Disney’s 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” should have been titled, “Maleficent.” After all, she gets more screen time than Princess Aurora, she’s a more interesting character, and she’s the one you want to dress up as for Halloween. So why does Sleeping Blandness get the title role? It’s nice to see Maleficent finally get top billing in a movie after all these years, even if the movie itself is only so-so.
Maleficent is given the “Wicked” treatment through this untold story of how she became a mistress of evil. Turns out that Maleficent started out as a winged fairy that watched over an enchanted forest. She fell in love with a young man named Stefan, who ultimately betrayed Maleficent by stealing her angelic wings in the night. When Stefan becomes king of the land, Maleficent vows revenge by cursing his firstborn daughter. On her 16th birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and you know the drill.
One thing the film undeniably has going for it is Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Maleficent. When you see her on screen with mounting horns, red lips, and risen cheekbones, you don’t just see an actress playing a character. You see Maleficent incarnate. What’s more, the movie supplies her with a great back-story and some wonderful characterization. Without giving too much away, Maleficent eventually finds herself stuck in two complicated roles as both Aurora’s parental figure and inevitable doom, making for inspired drama.
“Maleficent” sadly drops the ball when it comes to the supporting characters, however. Elle Fanning’s Princess Aurora is pretty and nice, but isn’t especially interesting. Although to be fair, the character was never that interesting to begin with. Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan starts off as a morally ambiguous, sympathetic character, but in the end just becomes a one-dimensional bad guy. The biggest disappointments are Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville as three color-coated pixies charged with protecting Aurora. Where in the original animated film these three were essentially the heroes, here they’re reduced to the kind of bumbling stooges you’d see in “Hocus Pocus.”
Oscar-winner Robert Stromberg, who acted as a production designer on the marvelous-looking “Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” makes his directorial debut. There’s no denying that “Maleficent” is an exceptionally crafted movie, at times almost looking like something from “Fantasia” brought to life. Most art directors and visual effects artists that try to sit in the director’s chair typically have the same problem, though. Their films end up looking spectacular, but lack in the storytelling department. Stromberg’s “Maleficent” isn’t an exception.
That’s not to say that “Maleficent” is all about the visuals. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton of “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” has some brilliant ideas, twists, and character dynamics. The problem is that the film doesn’t allow the time to let these ideas flourish. You thought “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was rushed? The first half of “Maleficent” feels like it’s almost all done in narration. Had this been a story ark on “Once Upon a Time,” we could have gotten the greatest “Maleficent” story of all time. Instead, we’ll just have to settle for a perfect leading performance, strong visuals, and just enough good ideas to keep the movie afloat.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at nspake@asu.