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No stranger to larger-than-life characters, Angelina Jolie doesn’t chew the estimable scenery in Maleficent — she infuses it, wielding a magnetic and effortless power as the magnificently malevolent fairy who places a curse on a newborn princess. Her iconic face subtly altered with prosthetics, she’s the heart and soul (Maleficent has both, it turns out) of Disney’s revisionist, live-action look at its most popular cartoon villain, the self-described Mistress of All Evil from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. A few bumpy patches notwithstanding, the new feature is an exquisitely designed, emotionally absorbing work of dark enchantment. With the production’s star wattage, well-known source material and multipronged branding push, the studio should see its $175 million gamble on a first-time director stir up box-office magic both domestically and in international markets.
As the Broadway musical Wicked did for the Wicked Witch of the West, the movie humanizes Maleficent by creating an origin story, revealing a shocking betrayal that turned the kind fairy vengeful. Reworking an age-old tale that has undergone countless variations over the centuries, the screenplay by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) draws from Charles Perrault’s 1697 “La Belle au bois dormant” and the animated Disney feature that gave the spiteful character a name and a deliciously sinister personality — which Jolie deepens while still finding the kick in it. There’s no hundred-year sleep in the new film’s timeline, and the handsome prince is a bit player in a story whose true center is a love that has nothing to do with happily-ever-after romance.
But magical fairy-tale elements still abound in the debut helming effort of Robert Stromberg, production designer on Avatar and a longtime visual effects artist whose credits include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Hunger Games and Life of Pi. “Let us tell an old story anew,” the film’s voiceover narration begins, setting a tone of once-upon-a-time with a twist. (The opening scenes were written by an uncredited John Lee Hancock for late-in-production reshoots.) Though the narration sometimes states what’s already obvious, Janet McTeer delivers it with mellifluous and warm authority.
Those early scenes show the blossoming love between two orphans: a compassionate fairy girl named Maleficent and a human boy, Stefan. Played as kids by Isobelle Molloy and Michael Higgins, and as teens by Ella Purnell and Jackson Bews, they grow apart as adults. Jolie’s Maleficent is busy as protector of the moors, and Stefan is driven by ruthless ambition to attain his kingdom’s crown. He’s played by Sharlto Copley as the epitome of cravenness — a far cry from the just, noble and dreamy kings of many a childhood story, including the source for this one.
To secure that crown, Stefan commits an act of unspeakable cruelty against Maleficent. The mutilation takes place offscreen, but its effects are fully felt; Maleficent’s heartrending reaction recalls Jolie’s cry of anguish as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. To call Maleficent a woman scorned would be the mildest of understatements. And so her cruelty is understandable, if not justifiable, when, in a scene of beautifully orchestrated suspense and terror, she attends the christening of King Stefan’s child, Aurora, and casts her under a spell, dooming her to begin a very long nap at age 16, after the famously foreordained incident with a spinning-wheel needle.
The teenage Aurora, appearing three-quarters of an hour into the movie, is played by Elle Fanning with a preternatural brightness. (Jolie’s daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt takes her screen bow as the 5-year-old princess.) The opposition between the innocent, openhearted girl and the hate-filled fairy queen has the necessary archetypal pull, and their initial meeting, in the night forest, is one of the most striking sequences in the Disney canon.
There’s a diamond-in-the-rough aspect to Aurora’s loveliness; she’s no conventional Disney Princess but a child of nature with a strong sense of justice and an innate toughness — qualities that link her to the young Maleficent. Assuming that Maleficent is her fairy godmother and not her nemesis, she befriends her, and gradually Maleficent grows protective of her unwitting victim and conflicted beneath her poise. As in Brave, there’s a deeply felt maternal bond informing the action, but in this case it’s one defined not by blood but by affinity and respect. A prince (Brenton Thwaites) shows up — on a white horse, no less — but he’s hardly a key element of the drama.
The separate worlds of lovers-turned-enemies Maleficent and Stefan are divided by a wall of thorns and vividly imagined, defined in ways that bridge the stylized (inspired by the animated feature and vintage illustrations) and the richly textured organic. Stromberg and producer Joe Roth have enlisted a team of ace collaborators, and for the most part the film seamlessly combines the work of the actors with the costume design by Anna B. Sheppard, the production design of Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole, and the Carey Villegas-supervised visual effects.
The enchanted moors combine a misty, painterly quality with a make-believe sparkle, although the resident mud creatures, with their Darth Vader voices, are as distracting as the rock monsters in Noah. On the human side, there are quintessential storybook settings, august castles and expansive fields of war. The 3D, though unnecessary, lends a subtle depth to the visuals.
The most extraordinary visual effect, though, is Jolie’s transformation into the title character. With the help of prosthetic appliances, contact lenses and a team led by creature-design whiz Rick Baker, Maleficent has iridescent eyes and cheekbones like knives. Jolie gives her a regal bearing and an ultra-composed way of speaking. In battle scenes that are integral to the story but whose scale and clamor feel like concessions to contemporary action-movie norms, Maleficent is right in the fray, a Valkyrie facing down invaders.
Tempering her rage and intensity is the raven Diaval (Sam Riley, equipped with beaklike schnoz), Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick of sorts. Their back-and-forth has a comedic edge. Providing broader comic relief and whimsy are three tiny pixies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville through a combo of performance capture and CGI. Entrusted by the king with caring for Aurora before her fateful 16th birthday, they snap out of their pixel-based bodies into human size but remain hopelessly pixilated — clownishly inept at childcare.
The comedy is never overstated, whereas the swell and bombast of James Newton Howard’s score comes on strong in the early sequences before finding a groove. For most of the movie, Stromberg strikes the right balance between intimacy and spectacle, and Dean Semler’s fluent camerawork reveals the invented world with a sophisticated take on the primal play of darkness and light.
Production companies: Roth Films
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manning, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham, Ella Purnell, Jackson Bews, Isobelle Molloy, Michael Higgins, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Janet McTeer
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton
Producer: Joe Roth
Executive producers: Angelina Jolie, Michael Vieira, Don Hahn, Palak Patel, Matt Smith, Sarah Bradshaw
Director of photography: Dean Semler
Production designers: Gary Freeman, Dylan Cole
Costume designer: Anna B. Sheppard
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson
Composer: James Newton Howard
Senior visual effects supervisor: Carey Villegas
Special makeup effects artist: Rick Baker
Rated PG, 97 minutes
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