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Disney magic missing in misfired Maleficent

The only magic in Maleficent is the relentless, inescapable hype drummed up by Disney to promote it. Under the direction of first-timer Robert Stromberg, the film purports to offer the backstory – as if one were necessary – of Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis, the titular Maleficent.

In that role, Angelina Jolie is a striking vision with her cut-glass cheekbones, curled horns and glowing eyes. Yet hers is the only character with any dramatic arc (so to speak) or semblance of dimension.

Maleficent wasn’t always bad, but when her human beloved Stefan betrayed her by cutting off her wings, she turned wicked in a hurry. Evidently, hell hath no fury like a woman clipped.

The rest of the movie is one long waiting game, as Maleficent bides her time and keeps a watchful eye over her intended target, the princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), Stefan’s daughter. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay offers a revisionist take on the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty, but

it’s hardly an improvement. The special effects are the whole show, trampling both the characters and whatever charm the original tale possesses underfoot.

Maleficent is a production designer’s dream, so it’s hardly surprising that Stromberg used to be one – winning Oscars for Avatar (2009) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). He handles the technical aspects of the film reasonably well, but displays no aptitude in creating characterization or building story momentum. The occasional narration (by Janet McTeer) is seemingly employed to move things along, but even at 97 minutes Maleficent lumbers, special-effects barrage notwithstanding.

The actors are helpless. Fanning is appropriately wistful (and floats well) as the endangered Aurora but hasn’t much as the endangered Aurora but hasn’t much to say or do. Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple provide obligatory comic relief as bumbling fairies charged with protecting Aurora – although none of them ever notices that she spends an awful lot of time in the woods with Maleficent. Brenton Thwaites shows up late and makes little impression as Prince Phillip – otherwise known as Prince Charming, although it’s impossible to discern that here. He’s an afterthought. Sharlto Copley howls and rages as the duplicitous and ultimately villainous Stefan, in a performance of uncontrolled hamminess. Only Sam Riley, as Maleficent’s right-hand raven and occasional voice of reason Diaval, manages to survive unscathed.

It all ends pretty much as one would expect – and not a moment too soon — but also with a lot less impact and enjoyment than one would hope to expect, especially from Disney and especially from a film that cost upwards of $200 million to make. Maleficent is not only one of the summer’s biggest disappointments but also one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

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