It’s about stars.
Sports teams rarely succeed without them and neither do blockbuster Hollywood films.
As a live-action twist on the Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a dark and engaging fable set in an imaginative and beautiful world.
But none of that matters if not for Angelina Jolie in the title role.
Her screen credit alone gives the film instant credibility and assures there will be a wide audience in attendance during its first weekend in theaters.
But it’s her mesmerizing and bewitching performance as a complicated hero-turned villain that’s the biggest difference maker in Maleficent being a Disney summer tentpole release and not a cable-level miniseries.
Directed by Robert Stromberg.
Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on the Grimm fairy tale and Disney film ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ A Walt Disney release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rating PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images. Running time: 97 minutes.
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple.
Linda Woolverton — one of Disney’s go-to screenwriters with credits that include Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Tim Burton’s live-action Alice in Wonderland — reimagined the classic fable from the point of view of its iconic villain, who curses an infant princess to eternal sleep on her 16th birthday.
Clearly Woolverton wishes to know what would cause someone to do something so evil. Her answer: love and betrayal.
Maleficent is a powerful winged fairy who rules over an idyllic kingdom of magical beings and strange creatures. Neighboring her land is the kingdom of men, who want nothing more than to take Maleficent’s world for themselves. And after fighting back the king and his army of armored soldiers, Maleficent is later betrayed by the boy she loved, who clips her wings as a present to the king so that he may sit upon the throne himself as King Stefan (Sharlto Copley).
Maleficent’s first act is an often radical departure from the story most of us know, introducing a sweet, loving fairy cruelly double-crossed and vowing revenge.
With the villainess in place, much of the second act adheres to tradition.
Stefan’s wife gives birth to a daughter, Aurora. Three good fairies — Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) — arrive at the castle celebration to bestow good wishes on the infant. And then an uninvited Maleficent appears to curse the child. While Flittle, Knotgrass, and Thistletwit take custody of Aurora for the next 16 years to protect her, it’s Maleficent who cares for the child, including saving her when she walks off a cliff.
In such moments, Jolie subtly recasts our opinions of Maleficent as more than a one-dimensional antagonist.
And as she bonds with Aurora, and Aurora bonds with her -- believing Maleficent to be her protective fairy godmother -- Woolverton’s script flips the traditional Sleeping Beauty fable in favor of more emotionally complex and themes of mother-daughter relationships: absent (the Queen), inattentive (the three fairies), and flawed but redeemed (Maleficent).
Meanwhile, King Stefan serves the archetypal purpose of the emotionally distant and preoccupied father, one whose love for his daughter has long been eclipsed by his hatred for Maleficent. Copley’s Stefan is deranged for derangement’s sake, with little more than years of obsession to explain why he would abandon everyone and everything for his hatred of Maleficent. Even as Aurora returns to him, he is too busy in his revenge plans to acknowledge her.
While Jolie dominates the movie as Maleficent, the remaining cast suffer by comparison. Elle Fanning as Aurora offers little more to the princess than blissful and sweet, though the actress‘ warm smile and friendly face suggest this is a role -- like Jolie -- for which she is perfectly cast. And the three good fairies don’t have much to do in this version of the story, either, other than fulfill the obligation of the characters to appear onscreen for audiences. The one key new addition is Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s faithful crow and her conscience, which she frequently transforms into a man.
Robert Stromberg makes his directorial debut with this big-budget fueled fantasy, which isn’t surprising given his Oscar-winning resume as Avatar’s production designer, as well as Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful. Maleficent is equally arresting visually, creating a substantial place and time onscreen. And while the CGI isn‘t fooling audiences -- the product of technological limitations and our own knowledge of what’s real and cinema real -- the interaction between the actors and digital world appears skin-to-skin natural.
How Maleficent plays out in its final act will surprise some, though Woolverton is careful not to stray too far from the classic story. In movie terms, this take on Sleeping Beauty isn’t so much a new fable as it is a major reboot and origin story rolled into one, with a major star in the lead role having a great time onscreen.
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.