With Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton. Directed by Robert Stromberg. Written by Linda Woolverton. Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images. 97 minutes.
We’ve had so many fairy tale movies in recent years–everything from “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” to two retellings of “Snow White”–that one hardly knows that to expect from these efforts. In the case of MALEFICENT, what has been done is to take the 1959 Disney animated version of “Sleeping Beauty” and retell it in live action (mostly) from the viewpoint of character who places the curse of eternal slumber on the newborn Princess Aurora.
Maleficent lives in a literal fairyland and is a good-hearted spirit who befriends young Stephen, an ambitious boy from the human kingdom next door. When they grow into adulthood, things become more complicated. Maleficient (Angelina Jolie) is under attack by the humans but still trusts Stephen (Sharlto Copley) who has come to warn her. Stephen, however, lets ambition overcome his feelings and maims Maleficent to win the kingdom, no doubt thinking that by sparing her life he’s been good.
For Maleficent, though, this is cause for vengeance and when King Stephen’s daughter is born, she places her under a curse: when she turns sixteen she will prick herself on the needle of a spindle falling into an endless sleep, unable to be awakened except by “true love’s kiss.” Having been betrayed by Stephen’s earlier protestations of love, this is Maleficent’s ironic payback. Stephen sends the child off into the forest with three fairies (led by Imelda Staunton) who will protect her until she is sixteen plus one day.
You may think you know how the rest of the story goes, but since we’re seeing this from Maleficent’s viewpoint, there are twists in store. With the help of the crow Diaval (Sam Riley), she can shift into human or other forms. She keeps tabs on Aurora (Elle Fanning) as she grows into an open and kind-hearted young woman. As Maleficent observes Aurora, she sees her as someone not deserving the punishment due her father, and their relationship grows complex.
The result is a fairy tale film that may be the best since “Ever After,” the 1998 retelling of the Cinderella story. Visually stunning–you will believe Angelina Jolie can fly–it mixes human and CGI characters with some, like the fairies, that are a combination of both. Copley, the South African actor who burst onto the scene in “District 9,” plays Stephen as a character who might have been good but gets drawn more and more to his dark side. In contrast to “Sleeping Beauty,” it is King Stephen who is the villain of the piece. Fanning is everything we might expect from a Disney princess with an added touch of humor. She may be good and pure, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
In the end, though, the film rides on the strength of Angelina Jolie’s performance and she is, in a word, magnificent. Whether playing someone exacting her just revenge or finding a spark of feelings within herself she thought were long dead, Jolie commands the screen from the moment she appears. Without a trace of camp, she plays a magical creature while retaining her personality. Her performance is more dependent on her than on the special effects.
“Maleficent” sounded like one of those films created by the studio’s marketing department–“Let’s remake a property we already own but tell the story from the viewpoint of the villain”–and it could have turned out just that mechanical. Instead, it is an imaginative achievement that has its own story to tell, and tells it very well.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.