Did you know that the Disney villain Maleficent isn't a bitch? I didn't know that Maleficent isn't a bitch. I went to the movie bearing her name expecting to watch a bitch. I did not get a bitch. Life, though, for those 97 minutes was a bitch. I guess that's something.
Robert Stromberg's Maleficent doesn't merely humanize the Sleeping Beauty antagonist by giving us her perspective; it revises her into a different beast altogether. She is compassionate, she is maternal, she is peace loving. What kind of watered-down bullshit is that? As it stands, the 1959 original has more edge than this movie for daring to suggest that malice and evil are adequate motivations for a green-faced, horn-having, crow-confiding witch. Are we so protective of our children that we need for the bad lady not to be a bad lady anymore?
That's my theory, at least, to explain why Maleficent exists as it does. Angelina Jolie's performance is a sanitized rendering of the cartoon, and any rational expectation. I wanted a tour de force of seething and ridiculousness. Doesn't one select a role primarily for the opportunity to chew the scenery? Jolie's Maleficent is subdued, as if she's getting high off her own supply of sleeping curses. She sometimes spits out dry quips ("Oh." is one of them), she'll raise her voice when necessary (mostly when regurgitating lines from the cartoon source, in the rare moments when Maleficent isn't consciously veering off track), but she's mostly just there, a bastion of subtlety in a green-screened world that feels like the rest of the hazy and enchanted green-screened worlds we've come to expect from fantasies with blockbuster potential. Her face has been enhanced with jutting cheekbones so that she looks more angular, cartoonish, and alien-like at once, but for a few minutes after she came on screen, I wondered how drastically she dieted before filming.
The actual plot of Maleficent explains the chip on its title character's shoulder—she's a fairy whose wings were stolen from her by the man who'd go on to sire Sleeping Beauty/Aurora. But then it quickly brushes away the chips as Maleficent becomes Aurora's caretaker (the fairies employed by Aurora's father to watch over her are all incompetent and annoying). And then Maleficent and Aurora become friends. Shockingly, their bond is a superficial product of a circumstance in which a villain is sloppily transformed into a protagonist. Beaches this ain't. Aside from Jolie, the human actors, including Elle Fanning as Aurora, seem about as alive as the sub-Pixar blobs that Maleficent and her fellow fairfolk frolic amongst in their forest home.
Sleeping Beauty, by the way, sleeps for about five minutes in this movie. They even found a way to sanitize the defining deep slumber!
Who needs that? Who wants that? Who exactly is being serviced here? A cartoon character? Insofar as any reparations were necessary for a fictional witch (whose mode of attack—a slumber that can only be broken with a kiss—was really just a rip-off of that of the cartoon witch of Snow White, which no one ever seemed to care about but always really bugged me as a kid), this movie is a betrayal. Everybody's got their traumatizing shit that makes them who they are, and sometimes people use it to make the world a better place, sometimes people use it for their art, sometimes people take it out on others, sometimes people cast spells on the daughters of the men who stole their wings. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, but a movie this bad feels particularly undeserved for all involved and especially for us in the audience. From start to finish, Maleficent is a missed opportunity.