The booming sub-genre of fairy tale myth busting gets its most lavish treatment to date in Maleficent, Disney’s ostentatious re-writing of the Sleeping Beauty tale. It’s also a 90-minute affirmation of corporate confidence. After years of being pilloried for scrubbing the grit and grime from famous folk tales in order to make them more suitable to modern families, Maleficent is Disney’s embrace of that reputation, a made-up sympathy card for one of the most unabashedly evil villains in its animated canon. But while the film tries to mask postmodern posturing as moral nuance, there’s still magic going on in the margins.
A major part of that magic is Angelina Jolie, making the type of honest-to-goodness star turn that’s rarely seen in summer blockbusters these days. As the fairy Maleficent, she is protector of the Moors, a supernatural domain filled with strange, earthy elemental creatures and viewed with covetous suspicion by a neighboring kingdom of humans. In a long prologue sequence, she falls in and out of love with a human, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), while protecting her home from the forces of the paranoid King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). After failing to vanquish the armies of magic, the vengeful king issues a deathbed proclamation – the man who slays Maleficent will become successor to the throne. It’s a tempting offer for the vain, ambitious Stefan, now a trusted royal servant, whose pangs of conscience disrupt his attempt to murder his childhood sweetheart; he instead settles for deep emotional betrayal and bodily mutilation, removing Maleficent’s beloved fairy wings and leading King Henry to believe that his nemesis is no more.
While the set-up is supposed to generate pathos for Jolie’s character, her performance does something different – and arguably better. Post-betrayal, Maleficent becomes an amoral shit-stirrer, dropping in on the christening of now-King Stefan’s first daughter to place a death curse on the child. Not that she wants the child to actually die, mind you – she quickly becomes a better guardian than the three bumbling fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) charged with the infant Aurora’s care. By the time the teenaged Aurora (a radiant Elle Fanning) reveals that she’s been aware of her “fairy godmother” all along, Maleficent is more like a lovable anti-heroine, throwing massive amounts of shade like she’s auditioning for The Real Housewives of Medieval Fantasy.
Maleficent is at its weakest whenever it reaches for four-quadrant appeal, ladling wacky comedy and effects-heavy action onto a surprisingly affecting story about filial duty and self-determination. At least director Robert Stromberg – who won two Academy Awards for his production design work on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland – compensates for the film’s simplicity by lending an epic grace and fluidity to the visuals. There’s also something admirable about how Linda Woolverton’s script recasts a tale of female jealousy as one of female bonding in a way that will undoubtedly draw comparisons (favorable and otherwise, though the latter is more likely) to Frozen, Disney’s other recent lady-centric fairy tale. Maleficent is not a complex film, but it’s definitely an entertaining one, and better as it goes along, with Jolie shedding her recluse’s armor to stand up to an increasingly unhinged Copley, an actor who always makes a meal out of madness. Their stellar performances provide just enough weight to keep an otherwise lightweight tale from too closely resembling the patterns of hundreds of other happily-ever-afters that it’s ostensibly trying to break.