Listen well, all of you
So, this was the curse Maleficent was talking about. After all this time she finally got her revenge on Sleeping Beauty. Adding backstory to an established character is fine, but altering the events of the original tale to make Maleficent look sympathetic is not going to sit well with a lot of people, myself included. It could have been forgivable, however, if the movie had not been awkwardly balanced between uninspired action scenes and painful child-catered sequences. It’s Wicked without the genius and Disney when it wants to make a quick buck while working on better projects.
Thank goodness for Angelina Jolie, whose sleek exploration of the title character is defined by her wonderfully thorny grin and graceful dimensionality. (Not to mention her knife-sharp cheekbones, which she probably uses to open canned goods.) Jolie guides the often-stumbling script with a performance that excels when she gets to be all-out villainous, and stays strong when she becomes an unexpected parental figure to Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), a plot twist that, for me, was hard to swallow, but irresistible when offered by Jolie.
It turns out Maleficent was born a cheerful fairy guarding the CGI creatures of a forest called the moors, complete with a set of wings. The wings don’t last very long though, and are soon bloodlessly chopped off by her corrupted human friend Stefan (Sharlto Copley) as he pursues the throne of the ailing king who wishes her dead. And thus the velvety evil Maleficent we know is born, though not before showing us her delightful side.
Spurred by hatred of a man that scorned her (like probably every other female villain), Maleficent storms his castle at a celebration for his newborn daughter Aurora to curse her in a very well known way. The reimagined scene (in which Maleficent conveniently softens the curse herself rather than having a fairy do it) is perhaps the only scene from the 1959 animated film that feels both familiar and well adapted to fit the new tale’s mood. Everything before it was just build-up, and everything that came after felt drab in comparison.
Cursed to fall into an eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday and only to be awoken by true love’s kiss (which Maleficent believes does not exist after Stefan lied about theirs), Aurora is moved to a cottage in the woods to grow up safely from Maleficent. What better way to keep her safe from Maleficent than to move her to Maleficent’s own kingdom? The de-winged fairy stalks the girl as she grows up from afar, probably because she wants to stay as far away as possible from the three pixies raising her (Imelda Stauton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville). This is where the inevitable, awkward kid-friendly moments come in, delivering zero laughs and many jarringly uncharacteristic lines from Maleficent.
At least the film consistently looks good with swirling special effects and delightfully ugly creature designs. The film is directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, better known for his art direction on movies such as Avatar or Alice in Wonderland, a job which he should clearly stick to. Though not as eye-popping as the likes of Avatar or the recently rebooted Oz film, Maleficent’s strong point, besides Jolie, is its special effects.
Nothing could top Jolie though, as she somehow made believable and even empathetic the unlikely bond between Maleficent and Aurora, even to begrudging audience members like me. In screenwriter Linda Woolverton is going to ignore the events of the original tale, she should at least have some reason for doing so, and luckily for her Jolie was just enough. It squeaks by on the skin of Jolie’s perfect white teeth.