Hollywood execs used to say a female protagonist couldn't carry a big movie. Then came The Hunger Games and the Twilight series and Alice in Wonderland and Frozen. Maleficent, essentially a film about a middle-aged woman's regrets and her cheekbones, grossed nearly $170 million worldwide last weekend. It's nice to see the tide turn, but it would be nicer to see it turn with a good movie.
In Frozen, Disney reinvigorated an old story with clever new surprises. Maleficent returns to the lazy, lucrative pattern the studio set with Alice (Linda Woolverton scripted both films) and Oz the Great and Powerful: Take a familiar tale of wonder, reshape it to make it more like modern fantasies, fill the screen with visual splendor and rely on charismatic lead actors to do the rest.
Maleficent director Robert Stromberg, who was the production designer on both Oz and Alice, does his part by making its fairy-tale world look like a cross between Maxfield Parrish on acid and a classic silent film. Everything in this Sleeping Beauty update pivots around Angelina Jolie's good-fairy-turned-bad and her iconic face — always otherworldly, here uncannily enhanced with facial prosthetics. Mightier than her human adversaries, and apparently the only natural or supernatural creature in her world with half a brain, Maleficent eclipses the other characters to the extent of sucking the intrigue right out of the film.
We meet the title character as a winged orphan growing up in a fairyland called the Moors that adjoins a human kingdom. These Moors look more like swampy woodlands, and Maleficent seems more beneficent than not, but what's in a name? Anyhow, Maleficent grows into hers after her childhood friend, the human boy Stefan, reappears years later as a conniving courtier (Sharlto Copley) who betrays and mutilates her. When Stefan becomes king and spawns a royal daughter, Maleficent has the perfect gift for her christening: a neat little curse involving puberty, sleep and spinning wheels.
Hoping to avert Princess Aurora's destiny, Stefan inexplicably entrusts her to three pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) who are portrayed as incompetent half-wits. Hence the task of keeping Aurora alive to Sweet Sixteen falls to a remorseful Maleficent, who eventually starts feeling maternal toward the girl (Elle Fanning) she used as a scapegoat for her wrath.
It's not a bad scenario for a feminist fairy-tale reimagining: the "evil" fairy godmother as mentor. But to make the two women's bond meaningful, the script needs to give Aurora vigor and self-determination. Instead, like everyone else in the film, she remains a passive instrument of Maleficent's schemes. Fanning avoids cartoon sickly sweetness, but she has little to work with; Copley's character is similarly underwritten and anything but a worthy adversary. (The District 9 star does over-the-top performances and fade-into-the-wallpaper performances; this is among the latter.)
Maybe it's assumed these days, when you put Jolie in a film, that she's going to make everyone else into set dressing. But with nobody to play against except her own bad self, even Maleficent is more of a striking objet d'art than a character. Wearing the iconic horns and cowl from Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty, with luminous skin and eyes that were apparently based on a goat's, Jolie often appears silhouetted in shadows that evoke the black and white of silent-screen queens. She's like Norma Desmond without the good dialogue.
Alice and Oz appealed to audiences hungry for more busy marvels in the Harry Potter vein. But the action scenes in Maleficent feel perfunctory: Like Ridley Scott's Legend, it's likely to be remembered longer for its look than anything else. I know that I, for one, will be having nightmares about Jolie's prosthetic cheekbones — they're like caterpillars stuck under her skin! — for a while.