'Maleficent': What the Critics Are Saying

Disney's live-action reimagining of "Sleeping Beauty," marking the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, stars Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley and Sam Riley.

Maleficent, out Friday, is the origin tale of Disney's most popular cartoon villain from 1959's Sleeping Beauty, and stars Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley and Sam Riley. With a screenplay by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) that draws from Charles Perrault’s 1697 "La Belle au bois dormant" and the animated feature, Maleficent marks the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, Avatar production designer and a longtime visual effects artist whose credits include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Hunger Games and Life of Pi.

VIDEO: 'Maleficent': Angelina Jolie on Wearing Leather Horns and Acting With Her Daughter

Marking the summer's first tentpole for females of all ages, box-office observers predict that Maleficent -- which cost $175 million to produce after reshoots -- will likely cross $60 million in its domestic launch. Overseas, the fairy-tale feature opens in every major territory this weekend save for China and Japan, meaning that it will be playing in 75 percent of the foreign marketplace, and already opened to a stellar $2.5 million at the U.K. and Irish box office on Wednesday -- more than double the business of Oz the Great and Powerful.

Read what top critics are saying about Maleficent:

The Hollywood Reporter's film critic Sheri Linden notes in her review that "a few bumpy patches notwithstanding, the new feature is an exquisitely designed, emotionally absorbing work of dark enchantment." As the title character, "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 ... 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." Meanwhile, the teenage Aurora is played by Elle Fanning "with a preternatural brightness."

The film's visual effects "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 3D, though unnecessary, lends a subtle depth to the visuals." And while the lead characters are enchanting, the moors' "resident mud creatures, with their Darth Vader voices, are as distracting as the rock monsters in Noah."

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The New York Times' Manohla Dargis says Jolie "breezes through the movie, part superstar, part superfreak ... the exquisite attention to detail in both the makeup and costume is routine in major productions like this one, of course, but the mixture of Old Hollywood glamour and contemporary fetishwear doesn’t just turn Maleficent into a pleasurable spectacle, it also serves a character who embodies both the past and the future. Ms. Jolie’s performance is similarly bifurcated, with a controlled physicality that, just when it seems to be edging into catwalk blankness, springs to weird life with grotesque facial contortions and spidery movements." Director Stromberg "does best when he scales down" with images that reveal more than any line of dialogue, but "the action scenes, by contrast, are visually uninteresting, borderline generic and unnecessary ... but there’s so much to look at in the movie -- from the wittily designed creatures to the shocks of bilious green and purple -- that the battles quickly fade." Still, the warning remains: "It’s entirely possible that Maleficent, partly because it’s narratively weak and Ms. Jolie is a powerful screen presence, will inspire its share of warring interpretations (and dismissals)."

Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey writes that "Maleficent is Disney's most adventurous female empowerment parable yet as it explores how the age-old power struggle between men and women shapes the identity of both parties. Though it never plays like a polemic, the film has so much it wants to say the emotional power that might have made it a classic is undercut -- that is the other power struggle going on in the film." As the iconic villain, Jolie "creates a queen who may not be easy to love, but she is hard to hate. The black-and-white stereotypes are replaced by far more subtle shadings, the sneer that so characterized the original Disney queen is softened."

Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips gives "the Disney corporation's bombastic, moderately entertaining explanation" of Sleeping Beauty's villain two-and-a-half stars, noting the "elaborate battle sequences "that recall the dark-toned, blood-free slaughter of another recent fairy tale do-over, Snow White and the Huntsman." While Fanning and Jolie "are required to stay within the boundaries of a specific type of green-screen acting, they're awfully good at it; their work is vivid and emotionally potent ... as Maleficent herself thaws into pretty-niceness, Jolie keeps a tight rein on the transformation and on the film as a whole."

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Time's Richard Corliss declares that, with the exception of Angelina Jolie, "this pricey live-action drama is a dismaying botch," as Stromberg, "has no mastery of casting and guiding actors, little sense of narrative pace or build and -- the big, sad surprise -- a leaden sense of visualizing Maleficent’s fairyland." While Jolie "is the visual, aural and behavioral embodiment of an otherworldly goddess capable of anything, from poisonous curses to surrogate-mother love ... other than Jolie’s grandeur, and a bit of Fanning’s freshness, the movie’s got nothing," pointing out that Copley "lacks the traditional skills needed for a fairy-tale hero turned villain."

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee