Published May 30, 2014The rule of thumb when it comes to special effects in a film is that they should be utilized primarily to serve the story, but in Maleficent, they're the main attraction. The film overshadows the formidable presence of Angelina Jolie and strips this re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty of much of its emotion, but at least the visuals look pretty.
The focus of Sleeping Beauty is shifted to villain Maleficent (Jolie) here, who, still a fairy, we first meet flying over the moors of her magical home. Shortly, she has her wings and heart stolen by a boy named Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who ends up ruling the neighbouring land and eventually fathering Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning). At the celebration of her birth, Maleficent appears and curses Aurora to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and fall into a death-like sleep forever unless she can be awakened by true love's kiss.
Fearing the worst, Stefan has all existing spinning wheels burned and sends Aurora off to be raised by a trio of fairies living as peasant women. Through meetings with Maleficent over the years, Aurora grows up regarding her as a fairy godmother while Stefan and his kingdom seek to destroy her.
There are grand sights of armies battling tree creatures that emerge from the earth, dazzling spells conjuring such wonders as a giant wall of thorns and meticulously designed vistas that inspire awe. So why does it feel like very little actually happens? For how much of the story hinges on the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent, their few bonding sessions hardly establish a substantial relationship beyond the facile. Jolie, for all her valiant efforts, is reduced much of the time to an icy pout, as if unsure what will be happening around her once the effects are added.
There are a few memorable supporting characters to help lighten an otherwise dark tale, with Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville bringing a goofy slapstick charm to the fairies that raise Aurora. Likewise, Sam Riley makes the most of his scenes as a crow that Maleficent has transformed into her minion.
It's tempting to point to first-time director Robert Stromberg's work as a production designer on such films as Avatar and Alice In Wonderland as a possible reason for the emphasis on style over substance. He seems to have learned more from Tim Burton's recent displays of hollow pomp and pageantry than James Cameron's uncanny ability to paint a layered story in broad strokes. Perhaps he will get another opportunity when Disney gets around to telling Jafar's side of the story.