Something wicked this way comes... And that something wicked is Angelina Jolie, essaying the title role in "Maleficent."
If your animation history is spotty (or if you don't have a very young child in your life), Maleficent was the iconic sorceress from Walt Disney's very amazing 1959 animated feature "Sleeping Beauty" (in the original, she was sinisterly voiced by Eleanor Audley). Following the success of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" (and other fairy tale blockbusters from other studios), it was time to give "Sleeping Beauty" the "Wicked" treatment, with a story from the witch's point of view.
Of course, Sleeping Beauty is there, too. Elle Fanning plays Princess Aurora, in a performance that gets a little lost (if you don't know the story of Sleeping Beauty, we pity you) and there are supporting performances from Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Sam Riley, and Sharlto Copley. Quite frankly, when you're standing in Angelina's shadow, why bother?
But here's the bigger question: Should you plunk down your hard-earned cash to see Disney's latest big-budget adaptation of a beloved fairy tale? Read on to find out.
CAUTION: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
1. Angelina Is the Queen
The only reason anyone is really excited about "Maleficent" is the fact that they're going to get to watch one of the biggest movie stars in the world vamp it up as one of the most iconic villainesses in cinema history. And vamp she does. When the movie gives her something to do, Jolie is absolutely amazing -- you can tell that she loves the role and the wardrobe (including the ingenious prosthetic make-up effects designed by the wizardly Rick Baker); she is Maleficent. This is most apparent in the coronation scene, where Maleficent delivers the curse that will, upon her 16th birthday, send princess Aurora into a death-like sleep. She is over-the-top but never hammy, it's a carefully modulated performance that might be overlooked because of how big everything else in the movie is. But it shouldn't be. She is dynamite.
2. The Pacing Is Weirdly Off
The sensation that "Maleficent" is a very large sinking ship can be felt early in the movie, particularly in the first 20 minutes or so, which are devoted almost exclusively to Maleficent as a young girl and teenager. It feels like it goes on forever, but it's also pretty short, especially considering the movie is 95 minutes total. There's no form or flow to anything that happens in the movie, so that an eternity is seemingly spent in the magical land of the Moors, while the climactic siege of the castle takes what feels like a few moments. It's shapeless, rudderless, and very confusing.
3. It's Nothing Like Disney's Original 'Sleeping Beauty'
If you're a fan of the original 1959 "Sleeping Beauty," a massive technical and narrative accomplishment that pretty much bankrupted the studio in the pivotal post-war years and condemned animated princess stories to the studio's dungeons for another 30 years, you won't notice much in "Maleficent." Sure, she has her horns and there is a wall of thorns but there is very little that the two movies share, which is a shame because "Sleeping Beauty" is totally brilliant and easily one of the most visually striking animated films ever. But virtually nothing is retained from that version -- Maleficent's erstwhile feathered companion has been transformed into some weird human guy (Sam Riley), and her ghoulish minions are gone, replaced by a menagerie of forest creatures. The fairy protectors of Aurora aren't charming and concerned; they've been reduced to bumbling, borderline incompetent comic relief.
4. Sleeping Beauty Only Sleeps for a Few Minutes
In the movie's bizarre second act, Maleficent begins to have frequent, totally pleasant interaction with Aurora -- even though she's cursed her with a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday. On multilpe occasions, Maleficent enchants Aurora and brings her to the magical Moors, then sends her back. And, sadly, this back-and-forth seems to constitute much more time than the actual enchanted sewing spindle bit that we all know and love.
5. Maleficent Doesn't Turn Into a Dragon
But even more miscalculated than the fact that Sleeping Beauty only naps is the fact that Maleficent doesn't turn into a dragon. At all. That was one of the more memorable character traits that she had in the original film. This act, instead, is given to her crow-man companion. Come on!
6. Sharlto Isn't That Scary
When you're facing off against the Mistress of Evil (as she calls herself in the cartoon), you have to be pretty fearsome. Sharlto Copley, who was last seen menacing Matt Damon in "Elysium," is not up to the task. There's not that much to his character, a peasant who uses Maleficent to achieve his goals of ruling the kingdom. Instead of being a really nasty, evil dude, he just seems kooky and obsessed. There was potential there -- one scene has him speaking Maleficent's wings, which he keeps in a display case like a winning hockey jersey -- but, like much of the movie, it's squandered.
7. A More Seasoned Director Would Have Done a Better Job
Robert Stromberg, a production designer who has massive hits in the form of "Avatar," "Oz the Great and Powerful," and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," is making his directorial debut on "Maleficent," and clearly this wasn't the best choice. Not only his lack of directing experience evident (the camera barely moves and the frames are cluttered and clunky), but he fails to grasp a proper way of illuminating some of the movie's thematic, emotional, or metaphoric concerns. Let's remember that Stromberg was obsessed with the way that Pandora looked, not with the audience caring about what happened to the Na'vi. Considering that such heavyweight filmmakers as Brad Bird and Tim Burton were at various points attached to the project (and that Stromberg was replaced during reshoots with "Saving Mr. Banks" director John Lee Hancock), it's clear that he wasn't Disney's first choice.
8. There Aren't Any Superheroes in It
Hey, that's a plus for some people.
9. The Score Is Lackluster
One of the more memorable aspects of the original 1959 animated film was the music, which was based around the original ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The songs grew organically from that score, and the entire thing felt sweeping and opulent. The score for "Maleficent," however, by James Newton Howard is forgotten the moment you step out of the theater.
10. 'Cinderella' Looks Really Fun
Just because "Maleficent" didn't work doesn't mean that we won't get another, even more tantallizing fairy tale adaptation in 2015's "Cinderella." Directed by Kenneth Branagh, with a script by Aline Brosh McKenna, the footage that was screened recently at CinemaCon was supposedly incredible, with Cate Blanchett's Wicked Stepmother (and little mice in waist-coasts!) stealing the show. The live-action fairy tale movie might be down, but it's not out.
"Maleficent" opens everywhere May 30. Find movie times and buy tickets.