Jolie Spellbinding in Otherwise Flashy Letdown 'Maleficent'

Directed by: Robert Stromberg; Runtime: 97 minutes

Would the movie-going public even be enthusiastic about a live-action rendition of Sleeping Beauty without the perfectly-cast Angelina Jolie donning the horns, the slinky black dress, and the pearly-white grin of Maleficent? Perhaps, but given the lukewarm climate created by the reimagined tales of Snow White and Huntsman and Jack and the Giant Slayer, as well as Disney's track record with other live-action takes on their animated classics, it's hard to picture yet another flip on a familiar fable getting the same kind of attention without such a fitting, magnetic selection for the villainous lead. Alas, the objective driving Maleficent, the directorial debut from Robert Stromberg, aims to alter that perception on the iconic "Mistress of All Evil", offering a glimpse into her origin story and motivation for her wickedness. Unfortunately, without Jolie and moments of visual whimsy, the rest of this fractured fairy tale has been spun on the same wheel as others cut from a willfully dissimilar, lackluster cloth.

The skeleton of what makes up Disney's take on the Sleeping Beauty legend (even less Perrault and Grimm) has largely been preserved, but Maleficent starts out many years before those events, depicting a young and powerful fairy in her youth. Drawing a picture of a kingdom in conflict between human control and the autonomy of nature, the story fleshes out a whimsical corner of the land, the moors, for the winged girl to grow up and soar, never interacting with the outside realm until a young boy trespasses into the area. Years pass, friendships rise and fall, and the corruptible and controlling hearts of man encroach on Maleficent's domain, to which she's now their primary guardian. After intense conflict and scheming, the adult Maleficent (Jolie) -- stripped of some of her gifts, both physical and emotional -- lashes out against the kingdom, flowing into the events that most associate with the story through the scorned fairy's reprisal, directed at the newborn child of the king: Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).

Both in conceptual art and visual effect supervision, director Stromberg has a trove of enchanting work to his name, so there's little surprise that he's able to assemble a breathtaking and convincing fantastical atmosphere to the unexplored areas of Sleeping Beauty. The moors Maleficent inhabits in her youth and guards throughout her adulthood are populated with all manner of unique creatures both intimidating and peaceful -- including the three fairy godmothers: Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton); Flittle (Leslie Manville); and Thistlewitt (Juno Temple) -- against a candy-coated, craggy and knotted natural landscape that offers delights for the eyes ... and evolves with their protector's temperament. A significant part of Maleficent comes in presenting the land outside of the kingdom's grasp as able to thrive on its own, serene and misunderstood by the untrusting structuralism of the distant castle, commendably doing so through both familiar and unique fanciful visuals atop the occasionally provocative camerawork of Dances with Wolves and Apocalypto cinematographer Deam Semler.

The elaborations to the Sleeping Beauty fable end up being a double-edged sword for Maleficent, though, deepening its expressive potential while loosening its grip on levelheaded storytelling. Creating the kingdom's panic over the mysterious moors adds a substance-driven, timeless conflict to the fable -- not only do humans fear what they don't understand, but they seek to control and/or destroy it -- while Maleficent's ability to soar through the sky on the power of her wings and freely cast her magic shapes the character into a sympathetic entity, justifying her wickedness. Regrettably, the script from Alice in Wonderland writer Linda Woolverton makes some sacrifices to get those points across, introducing some head-scratcher issues involving the extents (and limitations) of Maleficent's magical powers and the degree of trust allotted to the moors' inhabitants. It's never really wise to pull at the strings of a fantasy environment like that; however, those shifts downgrade the oft-told story more than they enrich it, even putting a different slant on the motif of "true love's first kiss".

Thankfully, Angelina Jolie's there to mask some of those issues with a spectacular turn as Maleficent. The iconic, anticipated moments of her villainy come later in the story, of course: her first order of business is to convince the audience of who "Maleficent" was before she recoils into herself and transforms into the "Mistress of All Evil", to which she presents a fine mix of upbeat etherealness and absorbing melancholy as she's pushed beyond her limits. Her changeover, and the moments when her old self peeks out from her ominous disposition, are what truly elevate Jolie's performance and the entirety of Maleficent -- the fiendish, toothy cackle emerging from her skeletal facial structure and piercing eyes, justifying many of the story's twists through the dramatic and iniquitous displays they afford her. Maleficent's rapport with her right-hand raven, renamed Diaval (Sam Riley) and quite a bit different than what you might expect, offers unique splashes of devious humor and compassion to her character, too, one of the more successful workarounds from the Disney's outlook on the story.

Jolie's livewire turn as the villain isn't enough to carry Maleficent through its messy, embellished outlook on the fruition of Sleeping Beauty's renowned plot-points, even though it comes close. Some of that frustration rests on the shoulders of unpersuasive performances in key roles, where Elle Fanning's typically amiable cheerfulness as Princess Aurora and Sharlto Copley's mad fury as King Stefan are cloyingly projected to the rafters with little nuance. Through a whirlwind of fire and iron that drowns out those performances anyway, Maleficent certainly ends in crowd-pleasing fashion, one that attempts to have its cake and eat it, too, by sneakily preserving some of the hallmarks -- the curse, the kiss, the grand final battle with a dragon -- while bending them into alternate outcomes more befitting this new focus. On the surface, it works well enough as a fantastical diversion; as anything more, especially to those with attachments to the story, it results in little more than yet another clunky fairy-tale redux that barely glides alongside its contemporaries thanks to sensory splendor and a bewitching lead.

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