Even the Disney classics, it seems, aren’t immune to the gritty reboot syndrome. Then again, if they’re going to go back and redo their past works, Sleeping Beauty isn’t a bad choice because, despite its reputation, it’s not one of the company’s better animated features. Think I’m wrong? Watch it again. The animation is amazingly beautiful for the time and still holds up today. But the film moves at a snail’s pace, and doesn’t have the catchy music, funny moments, or lively, memorable characters of the best Disney pictures before or since.
So Maleficent is in a curious spot. It has the aesthetic that seemingly fits the “bigger doesn’t mean better” critique. But then, it is an improvement on the original Sleeping Beauty. But it’s better not because it’s bigger, but because the story is rewritten from a more interesting angle. But it’s still not quite a success in that regard, and is an average film that merely looks very good.
Many things happen that are quite similar to the 1959 picture: Angelina Jolie’s title character puts a curse on King Stefan’s (Sharlto Copley) newborn daughter, which will cause her to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep on her 16th birthday. But it explains that it was not out of pure evil, but revenge: you see, young Maleficent (Ella Purnell) and Stefan (Michael Higgins) were best friends until he betrayed her to become king of the human realm, which caused her to turn bad. While watching over the Princess (Elle Fanning) over 16 years, however, old Maleficent starts to have a change of heart and begins to care about the girl.
It’s a better take on the story, yes, but it’s still not very substantial, at least not enough for a whole movie. For every moment the narrative actually has some substance and emotion to it, there's at least one long, dragging scene. And even those don’t make up the entire runtime. To fill the film out, there are some darker moments, but only dark meaning “lots of CGI fighting and monsters,” not dark as in imaginative or edgy. Beyond boring and derivative, it just seems intrusive. Can you imagine if Disney added pumped-up fantasy violence into, say, Alice in Wonderland? Oh wait...
The best moments are when the movie acts like a regular children’s fairy tale. In that respect, it’s somewhat successful. The sets and some of the CGI creatures and landscapes look good, if not especially real. There are some fun and funny moments from Sam Riley as Jolie’s shapeshifting lackey and Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville as the British fairy equivalent to the Three Stooges. Copley and Fanning are solid if slight in their roles. Jolie, however, is disappointing. She looks the part, but never really makes the character into someone you love watching onscreen even though they’re supposed to be the bad guy. The only time she really sells it is in the recreation of the character’s grand entrance, which you can see in the trailers. The rest of the time, it looks like she’s phoning it in. Also, if you’ve seen Frozen, you can kind of predict the ending, which took me right out of the climax (not that it was good, just an incomprehensible action scene).
This one’s probably adequate entertainment for the kids. But the reason Disney movies are so loved, I think, is because the studio has a real knack for making entertainment truly for all ages. Adults can enjoy their films as much as kids, not just because of nostalgia but because they’re that well done. Usually, but not this time.