In our current age of blockbusters suffused with CGI, I imagine we’ll keep coming back to this line from a recent editorial by Drew McWeeny at Hitfix: “We are living in an age of casual magic.” Maleficent doesn’t just exemplify this sentiment; it’s a movie where the main character literally does magic in a casual fashion. Director Robert Stromberg has created an animated movie that happens to have flesh-and-blood humans in it. And yet for all his efforts in creating a lush, colorful world, the movie is a hollow, cursory adaptation of Sleeping Beauty where the only life comes from star Angelina Jolie, whose performance is more vibrant than all the digital creations surrounding her.
The new adaptation takes Disney’s classic 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty, and focuses on its villain, Maleficent (Jolie). A long prologue explains how Maleficent was the winged fairy queen of the magical moors, and while her kingdom was on bad terms with the neighboring humans, she befriended and eventually fell in love with the human Stefan. When Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is offered a chance to become king if he can kill Maleficent, he betrays her and although he can’t bring himself to murder his old love, he takes her wings in order to prove that the fairy queen is dead. Stefan becomes king, Maleficent becomes evil, curses the baby Aurora, etc. Where the story twists is when Maleficent begins to feel sympathy for the child, and becomes her unlikely protector since her official fairy guardians Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) are incompetent.
Stromberg has won Oscars for his production design work on Alice in Wonderland and Avatar. Maleficent is his directorial debut, and his resume shows. He knows how to fill every frame with the same bright, flashy environments of his Oscar-winning movies to the point where the moors could be adjacent to Wonderland and Pandora. The forests are filled with the same moonlit backdrops, shimmering pools, and floating, pretty things. Stromberg either ran out of ideas, or he believed he was hired on the basis of repeating what worked before (if you ever thought it worked in the first place). Either way, the setting is pleasing to the eye, but ultimately meaningless.
The movie is more concerned with where its characters physically are rather than what they’re doing. Maleficent has a character arc but not much of a story. The script has bones, but nothing in the way of connective tissue except for lazy narration. Although the narration could be viewed as providing the film with a fairytale quality, it doesn’t change the fact that when you tell rather than show, it almost always removes any emotional impact. We don’t have to see why Aurora (Elle Fanning) grew into a happy teenager. She just is, and Fanning, despite being a talented actress, was apparently hired on the basis of her bright smile and upbeat demeanor. But Aurora is as shallow as the CGI characters living in the moors.
Admittedly, this is really Jolie’s show, and she’s clearly having a blast when the movie lets her act instead of devouring her with the scenery. Jolie, when given the opportunity, can give great performances, but that seems secondary to what Stromberg is trying to accomplish. She’s a vehicle for set pieces and moving to new locales. Maleficent is a perfect fit for this movie not because she’s a good character for a redemption story, but because she can conjure CGI animation. The best scene in the film (and the one that’s in almost all of the trailers) is the recreation of the christening scene from Sleeping Beauty. It’s on a practical set with very few visual effects, and it’s mainly an interaction between Maleficent and Stefan. The scene with the greatest impact isn’t the one filled with CGI wizardly; it’s the one that relies on human performances.
I’m not against movies with plenty of CGI because most blockbusters are these days. Green screen is the present-day matte painting. But those paintings and effects are meant to service the story, not vice-versa. The movie has a worthwhile take on a famous character because villains can be more interesting when they’re misunderstood rather than bad for the sake of being bad. Maleficent is one of Disney’s best villains, and this film had the opportunity to give her new life. But Maleficent isn’t really an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. It’s an adaptation of a screen saver.