There are plenty of problems with Disney's Maleficence. The pacing. The tone. The CG overload. The weak humor. The tortured backstory. The lack of any real connection to Sleeping Beauty. But you know what? I love this movie. I'm going to buy the DVD and watch it over and over.
Minor spoilers ahead...
So here's the tl;dr version. In spite of a lot of questionable decisions and narrative excess, I found myself getting smitten with this film purely because of Angelina Jolie's fantastic, witty, wounded performance as Maleficent. Thanks largely to Jolie, the emotional core of this film is strong, and the basic story is rock solid.
And there are really only two kinds of films, in the end: Ones which tell a story, in which people grow and change and things have some point to them, and ones which don't. I will forgive a movie almost anything if it has a solid grasp of story, and Maleficent does.
So let's run through why Maleficent is a flawed movie — probably fatally flawed — and then move on to why Angelina Jolie pretty much single-handedly turns it into a thing of beauty.
Hollywood's Fairytale Problem
Fairytales work because they keep things simple. But Hollywood doesn't do simple any more. It's antithetical to the culture of pitch meetings and notes and four-quadrant movies. Every movie needs to have extra crap thrown into the mix, because someone thought it was a good idea or because it appeals to some added demographic.
In the case of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, its simplicity is its great strength. Maleficent puts a curse on Aurora for utterly silly reasons, and then spends 16 years waiting to spring it on her. When Aurora has a meet-cute with a handsome prince, Maleficent chains him up in a dungeon and taunts him with a vision of himself as an old man slinking to Aurora's castle, decades too late. She's operatic and bitchy and, well, a cartoon.
Maleficent is just the latest in a long line of live-action movies to try and create winking, self-aware, but darkly emotional versions of previously-Disneyfied fairytales. And it can't quite decide what tone it wants to strike, or where it wants to land — it wobbles between a darkness that verges on horror, and a cutesiness that rings kind of false.
And Maleficent is still half a cartoon in any case — director Robert Stromberg was the production designer on Avatar, and he's happy to throw Pandora-esque islands (albeit non-floating) and weird creatures at the screen. The fairies surrounding Maleficent are sometimes goofy, sometimes kind of pretty. (And I kept thinking, I hope Brian Froud gets a big paycheck from this movie. They owe him some money.)
But meanwhile, there's also some very adult themes — Maleficent's backstory veers into some intensely nasty places. And the movie tries to shoe-horn in a lot of politics involving a war between humans and fairies, which is an excuse for some Game of Thrones-y armor and violence. King Stefan, who is kind of a good-natured cipher in the cartoon, becomes a scenery-chewing psychopath in the hands of Sharlto Copley (who seems to be trying to do a Scottish accent?)
It's like someone trying to do a chiaroscuro painting, with fingerpaints. Wearing mittens.
So the tone is incredibly inconsistent, and the pace lags — and most of the movie's attempts at humor fall flat. Sleeping Beauty has some absolutely priceless slapstick involving the three fairies, and Sleeping Beauty herself, and the scene where the woodland creatures bring the Charming Prince's clothes to life is cute and hilarious. By contrast, Maleficent's attempts at humor generally come across as trying too hard. Effort-ful.
And yes, the CG overload is distracting. For some reason, when Hollywood hears "fairytale," everyone immediately thinks, "CG fondue." This has the same unreal candy-overdose feeling as Lovely Bones, Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland and the films of Tarsem Singh, to name just a few. Adding to the feeling of unreality, the CG looks terribly unfinished in some shots, as if they ran out of time or money. (I saw it in IMAX, which probably exacerbates this problem.)
If I had to sum up the problems with Maleficent, it would be: Too much clutter. They took Sleeping Beauty, a work of classic simplicity, and dressed it up in ten different cloaks at once.
The Amazing Power of Angelina Jolie
Even Maleficent herself isn't immune from the computer-animated excess of this movie — her cheekbones are distractingly computer-enhanced, and her face and her physicality are retouched at every turn.
And yet, Angelina Jolie's Maleficent is a genuinely fascinating character — horribly scarred from the mistreatment she's experienced, playfully wicked, and genuinely beautiful in the midst of so much faux beauty.
Jolie creates a performance that is both grandiose and subtle. You constantly sense that Maleficent is holding herself in check. Even as Maleficent's life is one big gaudy performance, she's actually giving nothing away. She's an introvert playing an extrovert, or a version of Auntie Mame with an immense reservoir of pain right under the surface.
Without giving too much away, Maleficent has a pretty surprising arc in this film, and it works because Jolie completely sells the emotional transformation her character goes through, without ever overplaying. She is destined to become a goth icon, as well as a beacon to anyone who's ever felt rejected and terrorized by this awful world. In a sense, Jolie is playing the same character Johnny Depp has tried to play for his last several films — except that it's not just surface and mannerisms this time. There's actually someone in there.
And maybe the fact that the world surrounding Maleficent is so drecky actually works in her favor — Angelina Jolie is trapped in a movie that doesn't deserve her, in just the same way that Maleficent is trapped in a world that doesn't understand her. She is beset by idiots and strangulated by worldbuilding overkill, and it only makes her seem more pure and beautiful by contrast.
And the biggest miracle of Maleficent is that in the middle of an empty spectacle, Angelina Jolie manages to turn this into a personal film about one character's emotional journey. She even manages to take all the garbled fairytale tropes and make them feel resonant, and like the realities of her character's world.
The idea of doing a Wicked for Maleficent, revealing her "real" story and turning her sympathetic, always felt a bit postmodern and fancy to me — like, we're too smartypants to take Sleeping Beauty at face value, so we have to turn everything on its head. But that's the nice thing about Maleficent: It fails so totally to do justice to Sleeping Beauty that it opens up a space for a completely different, odder story.
I guess what it comes down to is, can one really great performance rescue a movie? If you love the main character with a waving-your-lighter-over-your-head passion, does it translate to loving the film in general? It's tough to say. Probably the best thing is to rent Maleficent and fast-forward liberally. But I'm glad I saw it in the theater, because this Maleficent really deserves to be larger than life.