Wicked — in its various guises — has much to answer for in the realms of revisionist fairy tales. I suppose it is unfair to actually blame Gregory Maguire’s book for this. (I am less forgiving of the stage show, but that has to do with years of working in a movie theater and having those “Broadway basic” showtunes driven into my head like railroad spikes.) However, Wicked it is at least half of the fount from whence “serious” attempts at these revisionist takes spring. They also have their roots in the comic book — and comic book movie — world of origin stories. In the case of this latest, Maleficent, we are treated to a whitewash job that would have done Aunt Polly’s fence proud. In essence, what the film does is take one of the most belovedly evil characters of modern times and turn her into a woman scorned — but with a good heart. This is kind of like turning Dr. Fu Manchu into a misunderstood humanitarian. What makes the character appealing is lost.
I have no special fondness for Disney’s 1959 take on Sleeping Beauty, but I did see it when it was new — and when I was pretty new myself. At the age of 4, Maleficent — and the dragon version of her and those briars — terrified me. In fact, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I spent a lot of the movie hiding underneath my theater seat. Maleficent had no such impact on me. (Just as well, since it would have taken the combined resources of a fellow critic, my wife and a friend to haul me off the floor at this point.) All these elements are here, but the dragon isn’t a menace to anyone we theoretically care about, the briars are just sort of there and Maleficent is finally a big tub of mush — at least where Princess Aurora is concerned. The best I can say about Maleficent is that it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but that’s faint praise indeed — and is all directed at Angelina Jolie, who at least makes Maleficent occasionally amusing.
The actual origin story takes up very little of the film where young (Isobelle Molloy) and teen (Ella Purnell) Maleficent cavort with young (Michael Higgins) and teen (Jackson Bews) Stefan in her untroubled fairy kingdom that sits next to the world of humans where Stefan lives. It’s all youthful innocence followed by overstated high school romance — at first. Then King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) decides to invade the fairy world and is bested by adult Maleficent (Jolie), causing him to offer his crown to whoever brings him Maleficent’s head. Well, since Stefan has grown to manhood and has become the inherently shifty Sharlto Copley (affecting a dodgy Scots accent), he’s also grown ambitious and can’t resist such an offer. He can’t bring himself to decapitate his old girlfriend, but he manages to drug her and amputate her wings — sufficient proof of having disposed of her for King Henry. And from this, all the trouble begins, and the movie becomes a largely incoherent rehash of Sleeping Beauty.
What happens rarely makes good sense. When Aurora is born — and immediately cursed by the jilted and betrayed Maleficent — Stefan has all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed (albeit ineffectually) and then mystifyingly packs Aurora off to live unguarded in the woods with three moronic “comic” pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple) in attendance. That Aurora survives childhood is mostly due to Maleficent protecting her — so she can fall prey to the curse. Then the predictable happens, and the evil one comes to dote on Aurora, but finds she can’t break her own curse. In the meantime, Stefan has become more paranoid than Richard Nixon on a bad day. Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites) is virtually written out of the story — after all, we live in the age of statements of female empowerment. He also looks like a refugee from a boy band, and, of course, is as ineffectual as the hero in a B-horror picture. The rest practically writes itself.
In fairness, the film has obviously been cut down from a longer one and is barely held together by a clumsy narration from Janet McTeer. Whether the longer version would be better is a mystery that will likely never be solved. Probably, it would be more coherent, but matte painter and effects technician Robert Stromberg seems miscast as a director. He has art directed the film to within an inch of its life. Everything is so busy that little really registers. Supposedly breathtaking visions of fairies are much less enchanting that those in P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003). The less said about James Newton Howard’s ersatz-Danny Elfman score the better. Actually, the less said about the whole thing, the better. Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.