A quick perusal of reviews for Maleficent reveals them to be as inconsistent as the movie itself. The film is light and dark, pessimistic and optimistic, slapstick and dramatic without settling on any one dominant thing. Favorable reviewers tend to praise one or two aspects and forgive the others. Panners don't forgive: some want it grittier, some fluffier, some more cynical, some more upbeat, some bloodier, and some more kid-friendly; a few even object to (*spoiler* though in a Disney film this can’t be a surprise) a happy ending.
Maleficent is all over the place, but there is a reason for this. The various competing tones are a result of keeping Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty as a frame of reference while transmogrifying the myth into one that subverts the original. The resulting mix doesn’t bother me, perhaps because I’m more familiar than most with the original (one of Disney’s lesser seen classics), having first viewed it at the drive-in from the back seat of my parents’ Pontiac. Virtually every element of Sleeping Beauty returns in Maleficent – including the dragon fight I liked so much as a kid – but twisted to a darker form, which arguably turns the tale to the grimmer mood of Grimm.
The movie takes the “villain’s” perspective and is laced with fashionable misandry. That sounds like a complaint, but it isn’t. In this context it works as a method of turning the plot inside-out. The main male characters are either evil or feckless – as when (another *spoiler*) Prince Phillip utterly fails to awaken Aurora from her deep sleep. Maleficent gets a back story to explain her turn to the dark side; it is a story of horrible betrayal at the hands of Stefan who, despite his professions of love, cuts off her wings so he can succeed to the throne. This is the source of her curse on King Stefan’s daughter Aurora: that she can be awakened only by “true love’s kiss.” Maleficent is being sardonic because she doesn’t believe there is such a thing as true love. Neither does Stefan. In tune with modern cynical sensibilities, the movie never tries to dispute this point in the romantic sense of the word love.
Angelina Jolie plainly is having fun in her campy portrayal of the lead character, and I had fun watching her. Elle Fanning is fine as Aurora, but the movie isn’t primarily about her, so there is surprisingly little for her to do. The 3D fx is extraordinary, and the score by James Newton Howard manages to be coherent despite the constant shifts of mood. The final reprise of Once Upon a Dream drips with sarcasm.
All in all, Maleficent is impressive, enjoyable, and subversive (in a good sense). While it apparently doesn’t sit well with a sizable faction of reviewers, my thumbs join the ones pointed up.