Film Review: Maleficent

Wronged fairy casts a fearsome spell in Disney's elaborate reworking of "Sleeping Beauty," redeemed from kitsch by an alluring Angelina Jolie.

Destined to be a merchandizing powerhouse, Maleficent is also an unexpectedly serious attempt to rethink a durable fairytale. Credit Angelina Jolie for adding glamour and intensity to a project that often threatens to derail right in front of your eyes.

Janet McTeer's plummy narration lets viewers know from the start that Maleficent is treading in Wicked territory, not the worst place to be when reimagining fairytales. Maleficent, played as an adult by Jolie, is a winged fairy who rules over a magical kingdom known as the "moors." She befriends Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a poor human orphan, and over the years falls in love with him.

Opposing Maleficent and fairies in general is King Henry (Kenneth Cranham, in full bluster), whose army is rebuffed in a humiliating loss to dragons and monsters summoned by their queen. On his deathbed Henry promises his kingdom to anyone who can defeat Maleficent.

The conniving Stefan sneaks into the moors and drugs Maleficent, crushing her spirit but not her powers. She casts a spell on his first-born daughter Aurora (played as an adolescent by Elle Fanning), dooming her to eternal sleep when she turns sixteen.

The escalating feud between Maleficent and Stefan blights both their lands. Aurora, meanwhile, grows up under the tutelage of addlepated pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) whose wan slapstick evokes The Three Stooges. Watching over Aurora with her animal familiar Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent reluctantly becomes her guardian.

Many spells and battles ensue, some less plausible than others, interspersed with Disney's typical moralizing and life lessons. Reported script problems may have contributed to the movie's choppy feel, especially as Maleficent wends her way to Stefan's castle for a climactic showdown. A bigger drawback is the movie's magical settings, a tooth-grating combination of Avatar's Pandora and bad digital imitations of Jim Henson's Creature Workshop.

But every time the movie threatens to congeal into a gooey mess, Jolie finds a way to drag attention back to the serious issues lurking behind the plot. With her chiseled cheekbones and feline glare (courtesy of makeup veteran Rick Baker), she commands the screen, effortlessly upstaging everyone else in the cast. It's not a diva turn. Jolie's interpretation is always persuasive, and sometimes fascinating.

Maleficent has surface similarities to producer Joe Roth's recent fairytales Alice in Wonderland and Snow White & the Huntsman. Unlike those movies, it's always clear that the story here is about something else—that events in the plot represent sexual menace, infidelity, pride, fear of the "other." Nowhere is this more evident than when Stefan seduces Maleficent, a harrowing scene that could be difficult to explain to youngsters.

Maleficent should appeal directly to the audience that made Frozen a smash hit, raising the question of why Disney didn't go all in and make this a musical as well. As it stands, the movie's dark subject matter and occasionally indifferent execution may blunt turnout in theatres. No matter: Maleficent will be making the studio money for a long time to come.

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