Movie review: “Maleficent” a pretty package with storytelling flaws

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From the May 29, 2014 edition

“Let us tell an old story anew, and see how well you know it,” says our narrator at the beginning of “Maleficent,” simultaneously warning us that there are changes ahead.

Disney’s big-budget live-action reimagination of one of it’s most iconic cartoon villains takes what was an underdeveloped backstory and runs wild with it with mixed results, depending on whether you like things good or evil.

We meet Maleficent when she was just a carefree young fairy (or pixie, as the movie can’t seem to keep its own terminology straight) living in an idyllic forest world call the Moors.

So how does this sweet and kind fairy (played by Angelina Jolie in adulthood) become one of Disney’s biggest baddies? I’ll leave the surprises for the movie, but let’s just say this character arc is on truckstop speed.

With a cool, dark and sinister ad campaign focusing on the vampy, villainous incarnation — which Jolie nails, by the way — seeing the cheerful roots of the character was a little disconcerting. It was like young Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace.” Nobody wants to see Lil’ Darth Vader skipping and saying “Yippee!”

And with help from our storybook narrator, we cross some big lapses of time — some handled more awkwardly than others — that have a tale that spans decades unfold in a tidy (and more kid-friendly) 97 minutes.

Behind the helm of “Maleficent” is first-time director Robert Stromberg. His previous work in visual effects and production design for movies like “Avatar” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a pretty good indication of the sort of impressive eye candy you can expect. And the 3D upgrade is pretty worthwhile for this one.

On the downside, sometimes those big flashy visuals make this feel like a big blockbuster stew. There are large-scale battle scenes that feel like they’re out of a “Lord of the Rings” movie, and it’s easy to pick up notes from the Harry Potter films. That sounds all well and good, but more cohesion would be nice.

While the movie as a whole isn’t, ahem, magnificent, Jolie sure does relish her role. Sadly, she spends far too little of the film in villain mode, which is where things really feel juicy. “Maleficent” has the sights and sounds down, but it could use some more focused storytelling.