Let’s start with the obvious: the film is bloody gorgeously designed. From landscapes to make-up to costumes, it is a feast. This is probably due to first-time director Stromberg applying his vast f/x background to the production. It works, minus the oddly proportioned, somewhat plastic-y looking fairy trio of Staunton (The Girl), Temple (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), and Manville (An Adventure in Time and Space). Where his chops failed him was controlling the the cast and the plot.
Jolie (The Tourist) chomps into the movie with fervor, enjoying every minute of her character and journey. Who wouldn’t? The journey, however, is muddled. The intent is clear, but in attempting to bolt on Maleficent’s motivations, they ended up with some joins that just didn’t quite match up cleanly; Woolverton and the studio were afraid of going too far afield from the original material as we knew it—primarily from the 1959 Disney film. The world that was created was incomplete, but showing us just enough to make that frustrating rather than a short-cut. The marsh lands clearly have an interesting history and way of functioning, but we get little of that and have little understanding of how it all works.
Other than Jolie, only Riley (Byzantium) manages any kind of an interesting journey from his crow perspective, and does so with little dialogue and just a few looks (and some of those are CGI). The rest of the main cast, Copley (Europa Report), Fanning (Ginger & Rosa), and Thwaites (The Signal) are cardboard cutouts of the fairy tale, all at extremes and never really going beyond that. Most of the side characters and creatures are also just a tad too cutely designed at times. McTeer (The Honourable Woman) doing the narration was quite a nice surprise, but the conceit and final pay-off at the end didn’t work given the story they told… and to explain that would require a spoiler, so just think about it when you watch.
The movie is certainly worth seeing once. Depending on your particular tolerances, you may enjoy it more than once. I wish they’d had the guts to move further from the original and give us a real story. Despite their attempt to mirror the success of Frozen in plot design, it falls apart because of the lack of story created. I couldn’t even give this a grrrls tag because the motivations of the strong women are all driven by male choices and in reaction to those outcomes. Not even Maleficent stands on her own in this case.
While the recent Hercules certainly failed on many levels, at least that film tried to remake the story in a way that allowed us both what we knew and what they wanted. But Woolverton, who also gave us the rather weakly written Alice in Wonderland, is more of librettist to the Disney opera… they assume you’re there only for the visual music; the words are just around to paste the scenes together. So go and enjoy the music, but don’t expect to connect with the characters in any real way.