Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Robert Stromberg
Writer: Linda Woolverton
Producer: Joe Roth
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham
As a cruel act of revenge, a wicked fairy curses the daughter of a greedy king to fall into a deathlike sleep before her sixteenth birthday.
“Maleficent” is a shining example of a big-budget, major-studio star vehicle purposefully engineered to be a media spectacle so the audience is distracted from acknowledging how flatly mediocre its content really is. This is scripting by committee, where a project funnels repeatedly through a corporate machine until it achieves mass appeal by removing all personality and retaining only the basest elements to constitute a generic family-friendly film.
That may come off as a harsh swipe, and it is. But for some audiences, vacuous popcorn fare is all they need to placate wee ones with indiscriminate entertainment tastes for 90 minutes, even if no one remembers a single character’s name aside from Maleficent after the end credits finish scrolling. Quick, name any one of the three pixies that spirit away Aurora to the woods. Go ahead. I’ll wait while everyone scratches their heads and hits up Google.
Once upon a time, there existed such great discord between neighboring kingdoms of humans and fairies that it was said only a great hero or a terrible villain could bring them together. That’s about as vaguely noncommittal as a prophecy can be, which is only the first clue that “Maleficent” prefers to play both sides of a very vanilla aisle.
Maleficent is a winged fairy who lives in The Moors, a magical kingdom of sparkly creatures at war with the humans, as greedy and as vain as humans tend to be in such fairy tales. That conflict grows more complicated when young love blooms between Maleficent and a human boy named Stefan.
At one time, a previous draft of the script cast Stefan as a half-human, half-fairy bastard son of the king, which no doubt would have made for intriguing character development. Instead, as part of that aforementioned quest to strip any semblance of compelling backstory that could have been unique, the final version of Stefan is a mere plot device weakly rationalizing Maleficent’s transformation from smiling sprite into nasty witch.
So anxious is the movie to be done with Stefan that the span from when he first meets Maleficent as a child to the moment they share “true love’s kiss” at age sixteen occupies just three minutes of screentime. Despite being a critical plot point, it is a romance shorter than an average celebrity marriage, likely to be missed completely if a viewer mistakenly chooses the wrong scene for a quick bathroom break.
Feeling sympathy for Maleficent’s betrayal when Stefan returns as an adult to cut off her wings is next to impossible since their entire love story occurs during the duration of a sneeze. The audience doesn’t have time to develop an attachment to the man, so how does she?
Maleficent decides that the best revenge is to punish her own people by turning The Moors into a dark realm surrounded by gnarled tree branches. After learning that Stefan, now crowned as king since clipping Maleficent, has birthed a blonde baby daughter, the horned fairy crashes the christening with a curse. Why have just one character motivated by the pettiness of material wealth and power when you can have another main player defined by her willingness to doom an innocent baby to death as vengeance for a broken heart?
Angelina Jolie gives the role all she can, but the script only allows her to take it so far. Maleficent is portrayed as a cruel and isolated figure, which creates the problem of trying to show her “good” side when she has no one to interact with. That problem is serendipitously solved by including a crow named Diaval as her servant and confidant, who conveniently turns into a human when dialogue is the only way of transmitting exposition. Immediate purposes served, Diaval goes back into crow form until the story hits another wall and Maleficent finds herself in need of an errand boy again, or a dragon.
Meanwhile, three pixies arrive on cue for the most painfully plain and predictable comic relief imaginable, though the spaces reserved for laughs are instead filled by sighs. Battle sequences, sometimes appearing spontaneously, amp up the intensity and switch gears back to action-oriented eye candy whenever the tempo drifts too close to something resembling a deepening emotional connection.
While lacking almost as much heart as the Tin Man, the visual effects are impressive. They should be. The film’s director is Robert Stromberg. While he never directed a feature film before “Maleficent,” he is an Oscar-winning effects technician and production designer whose work includes films such as “Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.” That Disney specifically chose someone more experienced with computers, carpentry, and green screens than actors, storytelling, and dramatic staging tells you exactly what kind of movie they wanted “Maleficent” to be.
As milquetoast as “Maleficent” is, any Scriptwriting 101 professor refusing to award the screenplay with an “A” should be terminated from employment. Plot beats, character arcs, and story structure are ripped wholesale from a by-the-numbers formula that is derivatively unoriginal enough to be exactly what any Hollywood producer would desire from a summertime blockbuster. Top everything off with the ah-ah-aahing choir of a James Newton Howard score and you have a movie that represents either everything you hate about cookie-cutter claptrap or everything you love about mindlessly disposable fun.
The only fair way to grade “Maleficent” is to award it a score of 50/100. Like the movie itself, that is the simplest way to be broadly inoffensive and to satisfy as many people as possible without risking a declaration of substance one way or the other.
Review Score: 50