Anyone who saw the poster for “Maleficent” could be forgiven for thinking the title character must be one fearsome fairy indeed.
Angelina Jolie glowers beneath towering, twisted horns. Her convex cheeks, hollowed out under impossibly high cheekbones, give her face the look of a demonic ice sculpture. Yet this inversion of “Sleeping Beauty” does more than tell the story from her point of view: It tells us this legend is her story, and not the one we know. (After all, Princess Aurora sleeps through most of it.)
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton and first-time director Robert Stromberg begin in Maleficent’s childhood, when she’s the benevolent queen-to-be of a fairy kingdom (The Moors) that lies alongside a realm of greedy humans.
She meets a young human, who came to The Moors to steal a jewel but took her heart. A few years later, when both are 16, young Stefan gives her a kiss to bind them, but he forgets her when he’s caught up in political aspirations.
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The dying king, whom Maleficent humiliates in battle, tells his court that anyone who conquers her will be his heir. So Stefan betrays her, turning her into a raging terror who erects a barrier of thorns around The Moors. He becomes king, and she waits until his daughter is born to apply the curse we know from the Perrault fairy tale.
Our sympathies lie all with her and none with Stefan (Sharlto Copley, playing one of the psychos who seem to be his lot most of the time). When teenage Aurora (irresistible Elle Fanning) wanders into The Moors and adopts Maleficent as a surrogate mother, their relationship becomes the most complicated and interesting thing about the tale.
Woolverton falls into usual Disney patterns a bit too often. Comical, quibbling fairy “aunties” raise Aurora; a shape-shifting sidekick (Sam Riley) assists Maleficent. Stefan’s evil has almost no motivation; like Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast” (which Woolverton also wrote), he’s just a selfish egotist whom power corrupts.
Yet the idea that Maleficent suffers more than anyone else has power. When Stefan cuts off her magnificent wings in a Samson-and-Delilah moment, he robs her not only of flight but her identity: She’s both physically and emotionally crippled. Yet a truly evil creature would wreak havoc on humankind, and she punishes only Stefan’s family.
This may sound like a “Wicked” knockoff: A woman with magical powers and the ability to fly gets misunderstood by fearful humans, seeks isolation and has contact with only one person, a woman who knows her as the brave and decent soul she really is.
But that’s too easy a categorization. Unlike Elphaba, Maleficent constantly has to fight against her own bitterness and disappointment. Watching Jolie, one of America’s most adroit actresses, we see this turmoil expressed in the twist of a lip or the softening of a glance.
Director Stromberg won Oscars as production designer of “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland”; cinematographer Dean Semler won for “Dances With Wolves.” They make The Moors seem enchanted, whether in days shimmering with golden light or nights cloaked in blackness.
Yet nothing in their visually stimulating film registers as strongly as Jolie’s enigmatic, ever-changing face.