Back in 2006, Patton Oswalt had a standup bit where he fantasized about going back in time and killing George Lucas so he'd never make the Star Wars prequels. In the imaginary conversation, Lucas tries to sell Oswalt on those reviled films by assuring the comedian that all the things he digs about the series—Darth Vader, Boba Fett, the Death Star—will be in there, though the result won't be nearly as cool. Finally, Oswalt screams, "I don't give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!"
Unfortunately, moviegoers seem to disagree. Encouraged by the Star Wars machine's continued box-office success, Hollywood has been extending its franchises not via sequels, but through reboots, origin stories, and spinoffs. And for the few exceptions that do it well—see Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy—most of it just seems like an excuse to repackage the stuff we love by telling us where it came from.
I thought about Oswalt's rant a lot while watching Maleficent, a Disney live-action explanation of how the villain in 1959's animated Sleeping Beauty got so evil. The original wasn't one of Disney's best offerings—its story is a little drab, and its main character isn't particularly memorable—but the widescreen visuals were stunning, and it had a terrific baddie in Maleficent, her wickedness darkly seductive. Like Darth Vader, she's such a compellingly evil force that it was always tempting to imagine the events that shaped her. But Maleficent repeats the mistakes of other recent live-action fantasy films (Oz the Great and Powerful, Snow White and the Huntsman), giving us a magical world that labors over the magic but doesn't justify its reinventions. This movie doesn't enlarge or enrich Sleeping Beauty—it feels like a needless appendage.
Early on, Maleficent's unseen narrator advises us that the story we think we know isn't the truth, an intriguing way to upend expectations and give the filmmakers a blank slate. But it's soon apparent that there's not a lot of narrative ingenuity here. Young Maleficent (a sweet-tempered fairy played at different ages by Isobelle Molloy and Ella Purnell) falls for a human, Stefan. But as young adults (Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley), their Montague-and-Capulet infatuation runs aground after the human king declares war on the fairies. In order to protect Maleficent—and to realize his ambitions and prove himself a worthy heir to the dying king—Stefan drugs Maleficent and cuts off her beautiful wings, presenting them to the king as evidence that he's killed her. Stefan becomes king, and Maleficent swears vengeance: When Stefan and his wife later have their first child, a daughter named Aurora, she visits the castle and puts a curse on the baby that will leave her dead at the age of 16.
Maleficent draws inspiration from the original fairytale as well as the Disney movie, struggling to match that simple-yet-profound storytelling style. What's often overlooked in these fantasy retellings is that the tales being revamped are classics precisely because they're easy to follow. (The Wizard of Oz is about a young girl who goes on a quest and discovers there's no place like home. Star Wars is about a young man who goes on a quest and finds his place in the universe.) Admittedly, the problem with the original Sleeping Beauty is that its story is a drag—a young woman has to wait to be rescued by her prince—so a certain amount of fresh plotting is necessary here. (Like Frozen, Maleficent tries to get around the true-love's-kiss cliché, with some success.)
But the film's overriding problem is a focus on production design—and Jolie's evil-queen makeup—that gives short shrift to everything else. Maleficent is the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, who won art direction Oscars for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. (He also served as production designer on Oz the Great and Powerful.) So it's no surprise that he favors the overstuffed, effects-heavy look so common in CG fantasy/action movies these days. But the sheer glut of onscreen digital doodads works against the film's would-be enchanted environment: Rather than transporting us to another world, we're painfully aware of how phony and busy it all seems. This is especially true with the film's tedious stabs at comedy, provided by a shape-shifting Sam Riley (as Maleficent's sardonic henchman) and Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville (as the tiresomely bickering pixies protecting Aurora).
That strain extends to Jolie's performance. Her supernatural beauty, matched with her steely will, make her an ideal Maleficent. (She even wields the character's mocking, deadpan sense of humor to fine effect when she's comically repulsed by the utter adorableness of a young girl.) But Jolie doesn't really get a chance to own the role: She's mostly there to look like an animated evil fairy thanks to some ace makeup and prosthetics. As a result, the actress is somewhat embalmed, exuding a mixture of malice and heartbreak that never really cuts through the elaborate costumes and effects. (The reason why her curse can only be cured by true love is that Maleficent is convinced it doesn't exist after being betrayed by Stefan. But that romantic betrayal doesn't have pathos—it's a backstory oddly without resonance.)
Much of the film concerns Maleficent's reluctant befriending of teen Aurora (Elle Fanning), who doesn't realize who this evil fairy really is. (Like in the Disney original, the pixies take her out to the forest to protect her, but here, the two characters form a bond, which complicates Maleficent's feelings toward the young woman.) Maleficent means to tell the story of how a coldhearted villain learns how to love again, but Stromberg can't really focus on that emotional through-line when he has to deal with large-scale battle scenes, third-act action sequences, and the juggling of light and dark tones. Everything's so oversized and epic that the magic falls by the wayside. Disney's Sleeping Beauty wasn't perfect, but it's better than this.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.