There's a very good reason why Maleficent is Disney's most notorious villain, appearing video games and other films in all her dastardly glory. The Sleeping Beauty antagonist was straight-up evil and reveled in that wickedness, and along with her obsidian visage, willingness to kill an innocent girl, and ability to transform into a dragon (!!!) she has earned a spot as one incredible animated heel. But Maleficent, billed as a total reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, attempts to soften her into just another villain with a secret heart of gold, and in the process they take away what made her interesting in the first place.
Disney, who seem to be on a kick of revamping their animated classics into forgettable live-action films, have put their trust in debut director Robert Stromberg, the guy largely responsible for the elaborate, soulless look of Oz the Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland. Maleficent suffers from the same sterility brought on by an overabundance of digital effects, bleeding into a story that fails to offer much of a human quality and not nearly enough of Angelina Jolie (and her awesome cheekbones!) vamping it up. That's not to say she isn't terrific because Jolie embodies Maleficent so utterly that it makes the film's deficiencies elsewhere all the more obvious, and those problems begin with the severe deviations from the source material.
The Maleficent we are treated to was a happy young fairy, living amongst the magical creatures of the Moors, a lush, natural fantasy land separated from the humans. With her powerful wings, Maleficent soars through the air and is innocent of heart until she encounters Stefan, a young human boy who wandered into the Moors to steal something. She should have taken the hint, but instead Maleficent and Stefan fall in love, enjoying one another's company until he grows older and obsessed with becoming king. In a shocking, too-disturbing-for-kids act of betrayal, Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) takes the one thing in the world she loves most so that he can attain the throne.
It's at this point when the film briefly settles into normalcy and shines as Maleficent, all angry and literally green with rage, crashes a party at the castle celebrating the birth of Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning). Swatting aside the three nice-but-annoying fairies (Imelda Staunton, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple), she casts the familiar convoluted curse that would have Aurora pricking her finger on a spindle and falling into an eternal sleep, all by the age of 16. This is Jolie's truest moment to really show her wicked side, and she eats up the opportunity and goes in for a second helping. For a short while Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (also of Alice in Wonderland) give the film a jolt of life that sadly goes missing the instant this scene draws to a close in a puff of green smoke.
From that point on it becomes abundantly clear that Disney never thought beyond the "let's make a Maleficent movie" stage because they fail to give the character a clear motivation. Aurora, now a teenager living with her three bumbling fairy guardians (why are they morons, anyway?) is never given a personality to speak of. All we see of her is through the incompetence of her caretakers, and when they prove unable to watch over her it is Maleficent who, for reasons unknown, becomes her watchful fairy godmother. As Stefan sinks into a paranoid haze, Aurora and Maleficent are off bonding and playing with weird creatures, but really there is nothing of value going on for the entire second act. Little effort is made to show us what is going on inside the heads of either Maleficent or Aurora, confusing for a film that seems to exist largely to be a source of empowerment to young women. To that end the male characters, specifically the handsome Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites), are refashioned entirely or shifted into the background. Sam Riley is decent comic relief as Maleficent's shape-changing raven, Dieval, and more than any other has a real connection with Jolie.
Maleficent marks a wasted opportunity by Disney and Stromberg to present a truly devilish take on an old favorite. Jolie brings the fire and her formidable aura to the role but Maleficent's wings are clipped by a script that never offers a clear path for the character to take. Even if that path is one of pure wicked evil it would have been preferable to being so dull and misunderstood.