DIRECTED BY Robert Stromberg
STARS Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
Are revisionist takes on beloved children's stories a passing fancy, or should we expect a glut of them over the coming decades? Like the excellent Broadway hit Wicked and the execrable Hollywood hit Oz the Great and Powerful, both of which demonstrated how the Wicked Witch of the West didn't start out as a major-league villain, Maleficent takes the evil sorceress from Sleeping Beauty and rationally explains how she also found herself journeying to the dark side. At this rate, can we soon expect to see an infant Cruella De Vil viciously attacked by a rabid dalmatian, or a teenage Ursula the Sea Witch bullied by her mermaid peers?
Whereas the two Wizard of Oz prequels made sure that their stories flowed seamlessly into L. Frank Baum's tale without upsetting his established narrative, Maleficent feels as if it hews closer to the "alternate universe" theory popular in superhero comic books. Yet even this might be false, as the film's narrator (Janet McTeer) insists that the story we've heard over the years isn't entirely accurate. Translation: Expect some fundamental changes to the legend most people know from either Charles Perrault's original fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant or Disney's 1959 animated version Sleeping Beauty.
In this new picture, Maleficent is painted as a kind and gentle fairy, not only as a child but once she grows into womanhood (and played at this point by Angelina Jolie). It's only after she's betrayed by a man who predictably places more importance on power than romance (insecure guys, feel free to insert a NotAllMen meme here) that she lashes out in righteous anger. Circumstances lead to her placing a curse on the beautiful young Princess Aurora (portrayed in her teen years by Elle Fanning), but as she comes to know the child in her guise as Aurora's "fairy godmother," Maleficent begins to question her own judgment.
Debuting director Robert Stromberg is a five-time Emmy-winning visual effects artist (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Boardwalk Empire) and a two-time Oscar-winning production designer (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland), so it's a given that Maleficent looks magnificent. Unfortunately, Stromberg opts to go for cuteness on too many occasions — some of the forest denizens are about as menacing as Ewoks, and the three good fairies, played in both live-action and CGI incarnations by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple, are even more annoying than their animated 1959 counterparts — and this tends to undermine the sense of pungent menace suggested by the film's dark, dank look. Still, any weaknesses melt in the wake of Jolie's excellent work as the title figure. With dabs of CGI enhancing her already striking visage, Jolie moves through the film with the ease and confidence of a panther striding through the jungle, and her relationship with Aurora (Fanning is just fine, if a bit underused) provides the picture with its sizable emotional heft.
Maleficent may struggle during some of the passages in which Jolie is absent, but whenever she commands the screen, the picture can be wickedly good.