Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning and
Directed by Robert Stromberg
PG, 97 min.
Disney turns one of its own stories inside out in this inverted fairy tale back-story about the “mistress of all evil” who put the deep sleep on Sleeping Beauty.
Long before slumbering princess comes along, we meet the tiny winged creature who’ll grow up to become Maleficent, “the strongest fairy of them all,” protecting her idyllic land of fluttering pixies, gnarled tree warriors and mischievous, mud-slinging gnomes from the greedy, marauding humans in the neighboring kingdom.
Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a baroque sight--with bright red lips, gleaming white teeth, jutting prosthetic cheekbones, a gigantic set of wings, and a pair of imposing dark antlers--as the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the cartoon character many grownups will recall from the classic 1959 Disney version of the age-old Brothers Grimm folk tale.
A cruel betrayal hardens Maleficent’s heart and sets her on a path of vengeance toward the vile new king (Sharlito Copley), which leads to the famous curse she puts on his infant daughter: When the princess turns 16, she’ll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning loom and fall into a deep, death-like slumber from which she’ll never awaken. The only way to break the curse is with a kiss of “true love.”
But here’s the movie’s big twist: As princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) ages and becomes more adorable every year, Maleficent finds her own maternal instincts. Instead of waiting in wicked anticipation for the princess’ fateful 16th birthday, she begins to regret the horrible hex of doom she’s placed on the innocent girl.
A trio of fluttering fairy nannies provides comic relief, a fire-breathing dragon is as fearsome as you might expect, and there’s a shape-shifting young man (Sam Riley) who, depending on when you see him, may be a bird. And as the title character, Jolie is a campy composite of theatrics, costuming, makeup and special effects that create the movie’s swirling center of dramatic gravity.
Disney has shaken things up before, most successfully in last year’s “Frozen,” which stepped out from the company’s decades-old template to feature princesses that didn’t need princes to save them, complete them, or even make them interesting. “Maleficent” has a similar girrrl-power spin, but plays even looser with its own mythology and the possibilities for what “true love” can really mean.
First-time director Robert Stromberg is an award-winning set decorator and visual effects artist for major movies including “Avatar,” “The Life of Pi” and “The Hunger Games,” but his directorial inexperience shows. The movie practically spills over with lavish, flashy things to see, but overall it’s a bit of a muddle, a “Game of Thrones”-meets-“Lord of the Rings” bedtime story with a confusing tone that will likely puzzle many younger viewers accustomed to clearer, cleaner motives for characters, and needing more distinct lines separating heroes and villains. And too often, the special effects seem like cartoons, or computer-game graphics, at odds with its live action.
“There is an evil in this world, and I cannot keep you from it,” Maleficent tells Ambrosia at one point. Alas, neither can Aurora Jolie’s star power stir up enough magic Disney pixie dust to keep this big fractured fairy tale from falling into its own cracks.