Maleficent is a revisionist Disney fairy tale, riffing on the classic story of Sleeping Beauty. Much of its story takes place before the sleeping beauty herself is born. Visual effects veteran Robert Stromberg takes the director’s chair for the first time in his career, using his background to help create a vibrant world brimming with personality and stunning digital effects. As lush as the film is visually there is more to Maleficent than just a pretty face.
Maleficent is the most powerful fairy in the Moors forest. She watches over it and protects it from the greedy and power hungry King Henry. An elderly woman narrates the film, giving it that “Disney Fairy Tale” stamp, and tells of Maleficent’s human friend, Stefan, who almost became more than a friend. “Alas,” the narrator says, “it was not so.” She is betrayed and lays a spell on Aurora, cursing her to eternal sleep at the age of 16.
Rushed pacing hampers and frailly written characters run amok. Stromberg’s visual eye is superb but his direction, unaided by a lesser script from Linda Woolverton, is occasionally rocky. None of these falters can snuff out the darkly radiant Angelina Jolie. Her transition to darkness is handled a bit awkwardly and sloppily, but her motivations are crystal clear. Jolie owns both the role and the film, outshining even the most sparkling visuals. Maleficent’s thematic resonance and darkness stems entirely from her commanding presence. She plays the role with a bitter amusement, her eyes powerful and her smile both beautiful and threatening. Her confrontation with the newly-crowned King Stefan (Sharlto Copley working with thin material) is the film’s best scene. Jolie embodies the traumatized and barely-restrained Maleficent powerfully, with a sense of wryness working underneath it all. “You’re not welcome here,” Stefan says frailly. “Oh dear, what an awkward situation,” she says back, flashing a broad Jolie smile, her eyes narrowing, punching the scene with beauty and darkness and humor.
Ultimately Maleficent is a morality tale in keeping with the Disney spirit. Its uniqueness stems from the power of its lead and the thoughtful nature of its theme. Maleficent is first the victim of an evil act (a moment that evokes sexual abuse) and then the perpetrator, with all of the moments of pain and darkness stemming from this cycle of villainy. There are no perfect characters in this tale. As the film ends both tragedy and redemptive lovehang in the air but the message is clear: violence begets violence.