Starring Angelina Jolie. Rated PG.
Despite a few extra bells and whistles, Maleficent is basically a 3-D, live-action update of the Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty. This version has a lot going for it, including Angelina Jolie kicking fairy-tale ass in the title role.
As a lapsed fairy queen with a pronounced streak of evil, Jolie is really the star attraction here. Knowing that the film rises or falls on her presence alone, she’s wise enough to keep things deliciously subtle.
Of course, it’s not easy to be restrained while wearing a headdress that resembles a pair of satanic cattle horns and a leather jumpsuit that would make The Avengers’ Emma Peel blush. But, despite terminally pouty lips and cheekbones that just won’t quit, Jolie actually manages to layer the role with a surprising amount of complexity. She turns in a performance that’s bitchy, vulnerable, and just about everything in between.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s enough sheer menace in one of Maleficent’s withering glares to give shy preschoolers nightmares for a week. Director Robert Stromberg keeps things distinctly old-school here. Although there are a few brief moments of pure slapstick—chiefly supplied by Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, and Imelda Staunton as a trio of hapless fairies—there are no intrusive bits of postmodern humour to water down the tension. This is pretty much straight-up, classic Disney.
In fact, the screenplay, credited to a small army of writers, gets quite ominous at times. The core of the story is simple enough. Embittered by the betrayal of her former lover (Sharlto Copley), Maleficent places a curse on his daughter, Princess Aurora (a charming Elle Fanning.) The curse, which involves pricking her finger on a spindle, transforms her into Sleeping Beauty on her 16th birthday.
You may think you know what happens next. But the real thrill of Maleficent is that it keeps us guessing. A strong supporting cast really helps. (I particularly enjoyed Sam Riley as Maleficent’s wry, shape-shifting sidekick.) So does the inventive use of 3-D and consistently stunning production design. In short, if you like fairy tales the way they used to be, Maleficent delivers the goods.