Scorned Sprite: Jolie owns "Maleficent" with her deliciously fun turn
97 min., rated PG.
Hell hath no fury like a fairy scorned. A revisionist reincarnation of Charles Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormat," the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale "Little Briar Rose" and Walt Disney's 1959 animated classic "Sleeping Beauty," "Maleficent" devotes more time to the eponymous character whom we always knew as the so-called epitome of pure evil. The "untold story," a take-off from a storybook fairy tale we all know beat by beat from childhood, is a rote formula these days, but out of all of them, this one actually feels worthwhile in how it gives us a new angle, "Wicked"-style, on the side of the horned, glowing-eyed villainess. Director Robert Stromberg, making an impressive feature debut after being a production designer on 2009's "Avatar," 2010's "Alice in Wonderland," and 2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful," and screenwriter Linda Woolverton ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King") repurpose the classic story to contextualize Maleficent's wicked ways with a sympathetic backstory that goes beyond the black and white. Where it falls a smidgen short in the breadth of its storytelling, the film still has a classic look and feel, while bringing a more intriguingly layered perspective from our protagonist/antagonist for a modern audience. Horns and all, "Maleficent" is built and soars around one item: Angelina Jolie's deliciously fun, indelibly spicy portrayal.
If you didn't know Maleficent was once just a young fairy with wings, we won't point judgment. A long time ago, there were two dueling kingdoms between the king's castle and a forest of fairies and creatures. Young Maleficent (Isobelle Moloy), born with strong wings and gnarly horns, befriends a shy farm boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) and eventually falls in love with him. As years go by, Maleficent (now Angelina Jolie) becomes the fearless protector of her forest of thorns, while Stefan (now Sharlto Copley) becomes a gofer for the cruel, dying King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). Farm boy Stefan reunites with Maleficent, but only to avenge his master. He can't go through with killing her, so instead, he drugs her with a potion and clips her of her wings. Sadly robbed of her freedom as a fairy, the embittered and vengeful sorceress won't let it go and takes her retribution out on the newly crowned King Stefan by cursing his newborn daughter, Aurora. The angelic princess (Elle Fanning) grows up to be as carefree and happy as ever, being cared by her dim fairy aunties Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), but unbeknownst to her, her 16th birthday comes with pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and a death-like slumber that can only be lifted by true love's kiss. You only think you know the rest.
Not to slight any flora, thorny tree monster, or cute water sprite etched in by a computer artist, but Angelina Jolie is the most triumphant special effect, knocking it out the park and destined to be remembered as Maleficent. Instead of pushing the character into camp territory, she hones in on how to take a one-note villainess and make her a more complicated being—that of a sorceress with a thawed heart and a watchful guardian who realizes her mistakes—rather than purely good or bad with unexpected shading and subtlety. With her ruby lips, pale skin, fierce eyes, and stunningly exaggerated cheekbones, the facially angular Jolie not only owns the presence and physical attributes but plays the part of Maleficent with a touching regret, wounded heart, a deeply felt anger and cunning sense of humor. The actress gets enough to munch on and knows just how to marvelously play vicious iciness without losing her mischievous relish. In one knowing moment that earns a laugh, Maleficent (Jolie, a mother of six) tells adorable 5-year-old "beastie" Aurora (played by her real-life daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt): "I don't like children." Compared to Maleficent, every other character is thin but functional. As the 15-year-old Aurora, Elle Fanning is full of lovely grace and innocence with a radiant smile that would even make The Wicked Witch of the West a happy camper. In one of the more inventive additions, Maleficent has a shape-shifting raven sidekick and loyal servant in Diaval, humorously and sensitively played by Sam Riley. Sharlto Copley ends up making King Stefan suitably contemptible and selfish, a less interesting choice but one that helps Maleficent's case. Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple are sometimes bickering annoyances and, at other times, joyous delights as the oddly named trio of pixies, if only when Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit transform to human size; it's tough getting used to their creepily motion-captured faces on miniature bodies. Lastly, as Prince Phillip, Brenton Thwaites is handsome but a bit humdrum, perhaps because the character is something of an immaterial afterthought.
Luckily, the film does not solely live or die on Jolie, even though everything else is a slave to her centerpiece. While director Stromberg makes sure the story hits all the key pieces we're hoping to see in a live-action/CGI interpretation—baby Aurora's christening, the meeting of Prince Phillip, Aurora pricking her finger on the spindle and falling into a thought-to-be-permanent sleep before Phillip plants one on her—screenwriter Woolverton has woven a simple assault-and-revenge tale, where the wronged victim will never forgive or forget, and makes enough smart, bold tweaks here and there to justify the existence of a "Sleeping Beauty" update. One of the little twists may even pay some debt to "Frozen" because this is not a tale about a princess finding her prince, thank you very much. On a visual level, the eye candy in "Maleficent" first appears garishly psychedelic and fluffy, but then vastly improves upon the overblown and suffocating spectacle of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Oz the Great and Powerful." As is so often the case with effects-loaded fantasies such as this, the viewer just sees actors in front of a green screen before everything is added later in post. Here, it rarely ever feels like an aesthetically chintzy or hollow CG-athon that dwarfs all heart and soul but a lushly detailed, often magical wonderland with actual depth of field that characters can run through. The cornerstone of a sequence in which an uninvited Maleficent crashes the king and queen's christening for baby Aurora and bestows her "gift" upon the princess is tops; it's here that Jolie's cackle and raised voice could bring the castle walls down. There is also some high-flying action, the winged Maleficent swooping and soaring over a pond and dodging rocky structures, that is momentarily thrilling in 3-D. When it comes time for the obligatory third-act battle to take flight, complete with a fire-breathing dragon, it is more cleanly shot and cleverly staged than most, making use of Maleficent's "Kryptonite."
At an agreeably paced 97 minutes, the storytelling falls somewhere between efficient, rushed and underplotted, fleshing out Maleficent's motivations without overexplaining them and giving enough resonance to the relationships that matter. It's possible that adult viewers will see Maleficent's herstory as petty and heavy-handed, but like an eye for an eye, threatening to take what's closest to King Stefan after his betrayal makes complete sense to her. When one takes in the bigger picture, though, "Maleficent" overthrows preconceived notions as a surprising variant on an oft-told tale and a visually resplendent, darkly enchanting entertainment with a magnificent lead performance at its center. Villainess, heroine, anti-heroine, or just a compassionate yet understandably angry fairy, Maleficent is all of the above. See, there really are always two sides to every story.