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Review: Maleficent

May 30, 2014

By John Corrado

*** (out of 4)

Maleficent Poster

At the start of Maleficent, we are told by narrator Janet McTeer that things are going to be different from the story we already know.  And right from the opening scenes, we realize that this isn’t quite the same version of Sleeping Beauty that was first told by Disney in their 1959 animated classic.

The result is a good live action fairy tale that provides something a little different from the usual summer fare, and the millions of young teenagers who helped make Frozen such a big hit should give Maleficent a chance.  The entertaining and family friendly film opens this weekend, courtesy of Disney.

This version opens with young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) in awe of the enchanted forest around her, when she meets Stefan (Michael Higgins), an orphan boy disconnected from the humans that she fears.  The two become friends and eventually fall in love, but when he inevitably rejoins the human world, she is left jealous and alone.  This pain is made worse when the adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) returns to the forest, betraying and violating Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) in a ploy to take over the kingdom.

When his daughter is born, she gets revenge by putting a curse upon the “curious little beastie” that will send the child into an eternal sleep upon her sixteenth birthday, and can only be broken by true love’s kiss.  But their relationship changes as Maleficent and her shapeshifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) watch the princess grow over the years.  And when the teenaged Aurora (Elle Fanning) ventures into the woods, she comes upon Maleficent, at first mistaking her for a Fairy Godmother.

With those prominent cheekbones, white makeup and iconic horns, Angelina Jolie is mesmerizing to watch.  She brings a coldness to the classic character that is fascinatingly pulled back throughout the story, and her performance becomes even more impressive when empathy starts to emerge from within this sympathetic villain, who has been hurt by the world.  Angelina Jolie literally commands the screen, delivering a performance that consistently elevates Maleficent to a higher level.  Elle Fanning makes for an appealing Sleeping Beauty, innocent and full of wonder.

This is not to say that every element works.  The three fairies Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) who care for Aurora are actually kind of creepy and annoying, even in human form.  Some of the other woodland creatures are also more strange than appealing, and those expecting a brooding and violent fairy tale reboot like the popular Snow White and the Huntsman might be somewhat disappointed.  But Maleficent plays well at a PG level, and moves along at a brisk pace, with a fully utilized running time of just over ninety minutes.

This is probably also the strongest film compared to the recent onslaught of live action fairy tales that we got over the last few years, with a screenplay by Linda Woolverton that admirably succeeds at telling its own version of the story, aside from just switching around the main characters.  The plot drastically deviates from the original Sleeping Beauty during the impressive last act, with a surprisingly touching twist that brings added resonance to Maleficent, both the title character and the film itself.

Director Robert Stromberg has a background in visual effects, having also worked on Oz the Great and Powerful and the Oscar-winning Alice in Wonderland, and those taken with the look of those films are sure to admire Maleficent.  It’s easy to get immersed in this fantastical world, which is captured through some darkly beautiful cinematography.  And these are all reasons to see Maleficent, but the biggest one of all is Angelina Jolie, who is truly magnificent.

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