RATING: 3 stars (out of 4)
Fractured fairy tales are big business these days. When every story possible has been adapted for the big screen, I guess it’s not the worst idea in the world to tell the oldest ones possible from a different angle.
Over the past decade or so they’ve run the gamut from lush but silly (the kiddish Snow White adaptation “Mirror, Mirror,” with Julia Roberts) to dark and stormy (the other Snow White adaptation “Snow White and the Huntsman,” boasting vibes of a beyond-the-wall “Game of Thrones” battle) and epically successful but emotionally hollow (Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”).
Disney’s “Maleficent” is a rung above all of those movies (it’s not the best—that title still belongs to Burton’s visceral and blackly hilarious “Sleepy Hollow”), thanks to the magnificence of Maleficent herself, played to perfection by Angelina Jolie. As the titular evil-doer made famous in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale—and the animated 1959 movie—Jolie is all whole-milk skin, Serpentor eyes and jagged right angles under those famed horns, and she utterly dominates the movie.
It’s sometimes easy to overlook Jolie’s talent in the children-and-husband media swarm that’s perennially kicked up around her, but it’s there. Just watch her take over the screen and steal an Oscar away from Winona Ryder in “Girl, Interrupted,” or trade barbs and bullets with a smitten (in more ways than one) Brad Pitt in the sly and underrated “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” She’s a force of nature.
The movie also has another thing going for it in a wonderfully clever screenplay by Linda Woolverton—who also penned that Burton “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation, as well as “Beauty and the Beast.”
Woolverton’s spin introduces the young Maleficent as a winged fairy, living in a lush kingdom of magical creatures who falls for a young thief, Stefan, from the corrupt, nearby kingdom full of humans. Maleficent grows up to be the whirling, airborne queen of her fantasy-land, while Stefan (played as an adult by Sharito Copley, showing the same sort of menace he did as the scruffy mercenary in “Elysium”) is an ambitious, aspiring politician in the human-land, forgetting about his frequently-aloft crush.
As the humans look to take over the kingdom of magic, Stefan uses their past love (along with a potion and an iron chain) to clip Maleficent’s wings and power — Jolie has an especially effective, heartbreaking scene here, wailing up a storm in her betrayal.
Cue the familiar events from “Sleeping Beauty,” as Maleficent plots her revenge on now-king Stefan’s young daughter, Aurora. Woolverton and first-time director Robert Stromberg offer up a spellbinding (pun not intended, but I’ll make it anyway) recreation of Maleficent’s curse on the young babe, with Jolie slinking into the throne room in a storm of green menace, boasting that familiar pitch-black outfit and rich king-crimson lipstick.
Stromberg — who won two art direction Oscars for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” — has a wonderful eye for color and striking visual images, and Maleficent is full of them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the same sort of eye for the fantastical, creature-filled battles that a Peter Jackson or a James Cameron does; the movie is at its worst when it’s at its busiest, especially in a messy, fire-and-dragon-filled confrontational climax that seems more standard than anything else.
It’s when the movie slows down when Stromberg and Woolverton shine, particularly as it tracks the the young life of the exiled Princess Aurora. The two turn Maleficent sympathetic — even playful — as young Aurora grows up under her eye, watching her from the trees and skies with the assistance of shape-shifting raven Diaval (Sam Riley).
Jolie has a great amount of fun with Maleficent as the supposedly-fearsome evil-doer turns no more harmful than Bart Simpson, performing gentle pranks on the three pixies (played, Three Stooges-like, by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) charged with raising young Aurora, and even providing drink and protection for the little one.
This Maleficent may hiss “beasty” at the little girl she cursed, but Jolie lets bits of humanity shine through that shattered heart — there’s an especially wonderful scene between her and the toddler Aurora, played by Jolie’s own child Vivienne, that’s about as charming as you’ll get in modern movies.
As a matter of fact, the scenes with Maleficent playing voyeur to young Sleeping Beauty are so good that by the time she grows into the familiar age from the original tale (played as a teenager by a cheerful Elle Fanning), the movie loses some of its earlier, emotional power, veering dangerously into standard territory as Prince Charming and the spinning wheel come into play.
It’s saved by a nice little twist on a legendary scene as the movie comes to that busy climax — briskly, at least, with the whole thing clocking in at barely over 90 minutes — and by the sheer watchability of Jolie’s performance.
Generations of younger kids grew up with that image of the animated, pale-green Maleficent as their takeaway from Sleeping Beauty; generations more will grow up with the power of Jolie as their Maleficent. She’s a character for the ages. This one, in Maleficent’s unforgettable flesh and bone, is just as memorable as the one from pen and paper.