Turns out Maleficent wasn’t always bad. She was a good fairy once who fell in love, and got her heart broken. An act of betrayal – by who else but a greedy, ambitious man (Sharlto Copley) – unleashes her fury, and she casts a spell on his baby girl. At 16, Aurora (Elle Fanning) will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a death-like sleep. Still, it is clear early on that Maleficent doesn’t hate the girl, or the young woman she grows up to be. To her own surprise, she learns that she can’t help but protect the princess, growing up in an isolated cottage. Robert Stromberg, two-time Academy Award-winning production designer for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, makes his directing debut here, giving us a visually overwhelming 3D world flooded by digital effects of varying quality. The expansive vistas are gorgeous to look at, as are some flying sequences, and a majestic fire-breathing dragon. But the trolls and gremlins inhabiting these fantasy lands – and particularly the trio of pixies looking over the young princess – come off as creepy rather than cute.
Jolie is riveting every time she’s on screen, bringing humor where needed, and cold hard glassy stares to convey rage. At one point, she bursts into a piercing scream at the loss of her wings; it’s impossible not to be moved. But trapped in a film unsure of what it wants to be, the actress is its only strength. For Maleficent is beset with an overly busy plot, pacing issues, and abrupt changes in tone. Her own character suffers from a sort of script schizophrenia – one moment she’s raising hell, playing up to her wicked witch persona, the next moment she’s all gooey and soft over Aurora’s kindness. The romantic angle, between Aurora and the prince whose true-love kiss will break the curse, feels slapdash and underdeveloped, and the obligatory climatic action has little awe or wonder.
When the lights come back on in the end, it’s unlikely that much will stay with you, apart from Jolie’s scorching presence. She deserved better, and so did we. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Maleficent.