Why "Maleficent" Spells Doom for Upcoming Fairy Tale Reboots

Here’s the thing about twists (or prologues or prequels or what have you): they’re never necessary. No one can ever take claim to clamoring for additional backstory or exposition, because it just doesn’t happen. And in the case of “Maleficent,” they’re couldn’t have been a worse outcome for a project so highly-regarded from the start when audiences got their first glimpse of Angelina Jolie donning the iconic black horns and exaggerated cheek bones. “Maleficent” fails to reinvigorate the classic tale, nor add an authentic twist to the story—it simply falls flat on its face.

Maleficent, the character, remains one of Disney’s most mysterious and (admittedly) dastardly. Jolie brings a certain amount of stature to the role, to be sure, in what’s her first leading role since 2010’s “The Tourist.” But she can’t quite do it all, especially when given a story that surprisingly barren. It seems as though all the film wants her to do is brood in the background while emitting that unsettling, yet calm maniacal laugh. It’s haunting in the trailers and wonderful in the actual film once given context, but is incapable of lifting her surrounding characters to an appropriate height—one that would warrant a second viewing as well as add legitimacy to Disney’s efforts here.

And it’s not as if they put their fortunes in the wrong hands. Linda Woolverton, a Disney veteran who penned the screenplay of both “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” also produced this script that was directed by Robert Stromberg, the Academy award-winning special effects artist of “Oz the Great and Powerful.” It’s the latter’s first directorial effort and is one that shows by an over-reliance on CGI. Nonetheless, these are two very capable individuals, so why does the final product feel like something that was produced by the hand of a novice simply going through the motions?

Maybe it’s because everyone besides Jolie is just so terribly dull. Portraying the suddenly vengeful King Stefan is Sharlto Copley, who has proven to be far more effective as a protagonist than antagonist. In addition to never really knowing whether or not to drop his South African accent, he’s about as blasé as they come. When he’s not hunched over a table planning his army’s next attack, he’s pacing back and forth through the castle seemingly biding his time until the third act when (of course) some sort of battle has to occur. And somehow yes, that penultimate battle scene featuring fireballs and dragons and massive destruction does so in the least-exciting way possible. It’s not a spoiler to say that a dragon is definitely involved—mirroring the final scene of “Sleeping Beauty,” yet it’s clear the creative team behind this effort couldn’t be bothered to match much more from its far-and-away more enjoyable predecessor.

The other cast members are buoyed substantially by Jolie, including her shape-shifting confidante Diaval (Sam Riley) and, of course, Aurora (Elle Fanning). But really, I have to believe it’s the material that’s the problem, as these two aren’t given the opportunity to do anything more than look astonished and crack jokes that land with a thud. Furthermore, the three distractingly CGI-laden pixies charged with watching over Aurora until she turns 16 are anything but riveting. But hey, without their negligence, there wouldn’t be a movie. So I guess we should be a little more thankful.

It’s not difficult to comprehend why some performances are lackluster and characters far from fully fleshed out. What’s most jarring is that this magical tale full of pixies and unexplained creatures and evil curses and vengeful souls feuding nations is just so very, very boring. Maleficent has to wait 16 years for Aurora to experience the full effect of her unfortunate curse. Watching this, it feels as though we’re forced to spend 16 years waiting for anything remotely interesting to happen.

Speaking to everything outside the story, the biggest problem with Maleficent is that it’s just so needless. Disney has accomplished nothing by remaining their iconic villain as an ever-so-reluctant hero. (With the exception of opening up the gates for a sudden windfall of cash) They’ve complicated canon and diminished the lasting appeal of one of their more wonderful animated films. At least, with middling reviews and stark criticism, maybe they’ll stop?

Hardly.

“Maleficent” is just the tip of the iceberg for the studio. As of today, there are a total of two more Disney properties in production and that are being given a live-action re-imagining.

The first (and as teased in the trailers that ran before “Maleficent”) is “Cinderella.” Slated for a March 2015 release, the film is set to star “Downton Abbey” alum Lily James in the titular role, with Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter and Stellan Skarsgard in supporting roles. Kenneth Branagh has signed on to direct.

Disney will also be trotting out another similar romp next year in the form of “The Jungle Book.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, it is presently being envisioned as a live-action/CGI hybrid movie with Jon Favreau at the helm and Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson and Lupita Nyong’o starring. Ironically enough, Disney isn’t the only studio chomping at the bit to revisit the classic Rudyard Kipling story. Universal is also developing their spin on the project with Andy Serkis serving as the first-time director. So yes, similar to 2012’s dueling “Snow White” projects, we will have more of the same again in 2015 with these two projects.

Finally and in a story first reported by Deadline, Universal has also decided to move forward on a re-imaging of “The Little Mermaid.” However, it won’t be the signature Disney flick they’ll be drawing inspiration from, nor will the Mickey Mouse House have anything to do with this reincarnation. Universal is harkening back to Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the same name, albeit one that’s a little darker in tone. The studio has pegged Sofia Coppola to direct a script from Caroline Thompson of, most famously, “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

So the question remains—does “Maleficent” serve as a harbinger of doom for each of these upcoming projects? Granted, with different chefs in the kitchen and studios at play, their respective reincarnations will vary in overall quality, but can’t you just the beginnings of what’s bound to be a negative trend?

I think there are few things in life more certain than this. Of course, fairytale fodder isn’t exactly new—it’s what propelled “Shrek” into the public eye and untold amounts of money for nearly a decade. “Grimm,” the oft-forgotten yet somewhat surprisingly effective NBC Friday night drama, has continued to surpass expectations. Just two months ago, it was re-upped for a fourth season. But what has gotten into the silver screen production homes recently that have sparked renewed interest in reassigning characters and new wrinkles into once treasured stories?

It’s the allure of a built-in audience that will make their presence known as soon as the newest film hits theaters. It’s that those in charge know that, without a doubt, their projects will see profit regardless of how depressingly hollow each incarnation turns out to be. “Maleficent” proved that all you need is one thing going for it (in this case, Jolie’s star power and picture-perfect embodiment of the role) to reach the intended audience and justify the multi-million dollar production. This film effectively established the standard for shallow reproductions—and it’s not a very high one at that.

Hollywood never needed an excuse to be lazy. By all accounts they have a good one now.

FINAL MALEFICENT VERDICT: 5 embarrassingly neglectful fairies out of 10