In an era of movie redundancy and repetition, I suppose it’s pointless to question why we need a new, variant telling of Sleeping Beauty, based on the 1959 Walt Disney animated feature. In any case, the studio isn’t so much selling a story as a concept: Angelina Jolie as the icily beautiful title character. She’s quite good, but the film has other assets, chief among them a lush fairy-tale world created by production designers Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman (along with an army of visual effects artists). The result is truly magical, and Maleficent easily draws us into a marvelous make-believe environment.
The screenplay, credited to Linda Woolverton (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), is thoughtful and intelligent, taking a page from the Wicked playbook to explain how a peace-loving winged fairy could turn into a hate-filled villain. Jolie is a capable actress and makes the most of the role, bringing shading and subtlety to what could have been a one-dimensional portrayal. Her raven sidekick from the animated feature is depicted here as a creature named Diaval who can morph into almost anything, including a human being; he’s nicely played by Sam Riley.
A betrayal of the heart turns Maleficent into a dark spirit. I’d rather not give away any more of the story. Suffice it to say that she casts a curse on the daughter of her mortal enemy, King Stefan, from the neighboring kingdom of humans, and watches over Princess Aurora (a well-cast Elle Fanning) as she grows into adolescence.
Just when you think the characters’ issues may be happily resolved, along comes an action climax that seems arbitrary and unnecessary. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and a killing that’s new to the famous fairy tale. No real purpose is served, and when it was over I found myself indifferent to an experience that should have been cathartic.
Maleficent works best when it is expressing the simplest emotions, but the film doesn’t trust that simplicity and insists on adding spectacle to the mix. That’s a shame, because the film has so much going for it in the dynamics of its characters and the likability of its leading players.
I should add that while the film has been rated PG, young children may find many scenes quite intense—I know I did. Parents should be aware of what’s in store.