Movie Review: ‘Maleficent’ all effects, no substance

On one hand, I’m glad to see Disney offer a movie up that doesn’t find another seemingly random object or animal (let’s say bulls) anthropomorphized and thrown into an ironic setting (you mean they work in a china shop?! Oh No!).

On the other, “Maleficent” felt more like Disney cashing in on the not all-too-recent superhero craze. There are unexplained superpowers, an almost inhumanly attractive main character (that’s not a compliment), the origin story of an often overlooked villain in a well-known “universe” and the sense that the whole thing isn’t much more than an excuse to take your $8 and cram visual effects down your eyeholes.

It’s likely that Disney isn’t making their movies with the 29-year-old male as their target demographic; but they did market “Maleficent” in a way that suggests an attempt to broaden their range. Trailers feature a chillingly dark rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” and soundbites of Angelina Jolie saying “evil, hatred and revenge.” Visions are seldom what they seem, however, and once you’ve got your popcorn and your seat it’s just business as usual for Disney.

A beautiful young girl with curled horns and giant wings is shown bobbing and weaving through a magical landscape, complete with charming little CGI characters who obviously know and love her. “Oh Mrs. Twinklebottom, you’re always burning your muffins!” she might say, as she darts over the thatched roof of a matronly little gnome, and we feel as if we’re in on a little joke. All is well.

The problem is that Disney has this little exchange so diluted, down to such a formula, that it’s lost its value. They’re pulling heartstrings; they don’t care if there are hearts at both ends.

Disney films, at least from the past decade or so, seem to suggest that inner and outer beauty are directly correlated. Maleficent can’t be all bad, can she? It’s Angelina Jolie, and she’s all over the tabloid covers. Even the world itself darkens to mirror Maleficent’s mood. Ugliness is bad. Pretty: good.

South African Sharlto Copley lends both of his acting chops as adult Stefan, the king and father of Sleeping Beauty. I’ve seen him in three movies now and have heard at least a dozen accents leave his mouth. He does, however, manages to offer the film two things: the driving force for what little plot there is, and a relatively short on-screen time. Elle Fanning is sufficient as Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) in that she is pretty and at one point falls asleep.

The visuals are appropriately well done but immediately forgettable. I imagine some high-level Disney creative director telling his team of drones to “make it epic, like … ‘Avatar’ … ‘of the Rings’ ” before shuffling off to make his tee time. There’s the obligatory shot of two armies rushing across an open field toward each other, one side human, the other walking trees and winged aardvarks (or whatever they are) that makes for great trailer sequences.

There’s also a great shot of an angry Maleficent walking toward the castle between two stone walls, which break apart in an arcing wake behind her. I know it’s meant to be intense, but when shown from the side, Jolie looks like a pointy weedwhacker.

Disney has done a pretty good job of homogenizing the world of folk and fairy tales, even adding some wholesome little originals to the canon.

Perhaps in an attempt to rectify this they thought they’d revisit a classic and replace the lily-white world of hand-drawn song-and-dance with edgier CGI and live action. The result feels thin and unsatisfying, like your mother tossing some onion rings into a staple casserole to get you to eat your green beans.

1 star out of 4.

Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.