By NATHAN LERNER
“Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it,” intoned at the outset of “Maleficent,” the voice-over by its titular star, Angelina Jolie, proclaims the film’s revisionist intentions.
This vehicle draws its basic storyline from Charles Perrault’s 1697 “La Belle au bois dormant,” later canonized by the Brothers Grimm. It plucks the eponymous character from the 1959 animated Disney feature, “Sleeping Beauty.” In the latter, the newly dubbed Maleficent emerged as the self-described Mistress of All Evil. In this reimagining of the tale, the iconic meanie is provided with a sympathetic back story. It is evocative of the approach taken in the Broadway play, “Wicked.”
We are introduced to Maleficent as a young, winged fairy (Isobelle Molloy). She is defined as an orphan. Is there any more efficacious way to evoke sympathy? The kind-hearted and compassionate Maleficent flies high above the moors, keeping tabs on her enchanted kingdom.
One day, she saves a lost human boy, Stefan (Michael Higgins), who wanders into the forest. He and the Maleficent become playmates. As the two reach adolescence, love seemingly blossoms between Maleficent (now portrayed by Ella Purnell) and Stefan (now portrayed by Jackson Bews). However, the fickle Stefan returns to the land of the humans, breaking Maleficent’s heart.
Years later, Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) betrays his childhood playmate (now played by Jolie). Eager to be crowned king, he cleaves off Maleficent’s wings. Although this act of consummate cruelty is depicted off-screen, we hear Maleficent’s anguished scream.
Maleficent shows up at the christening of King Stefan’s daughter, Aurora. In an act of retribution, Maleficent places a magic curse on the neonate. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a sewing wheel and fall into a permanent sleep.
Aurora is raised in a remote bucolic cottage by the three forever squabbling pixies; Knotgrass (Imelda Stanton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville). The five-year old Aurora is played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. So, we have the real-life daughter of Hollywood royalty, making her screen debut as the king’s progeny. As Aurora grows, Maleficent keep a curious eye on her.
Approximately 45 minutes into the film, the role of Aurora is assumed by Elle Fanning. We have a memorable scene in which Aurora encounters Maleficent in the dark forest. The sweet-natured girl mistakenly assumes that Maleficent is her fairy godmother. Maleficent never divulges her true identity and it remains unknown to Aurora. Over time, Maleficent is touched by Aurora’s innate kindness. It reminds Maleficent of the girl that she once was. She comes to regret the spiteful curse that she has placed on Aurora.
All this is foreshadowing to the eventual battle royale between the humans under King Stefan and Maleficent and her allies against King Stefan’s army. In this visually-stunning vignettes, Maleficent is a not a detached sorceress, but a distaff Valkyrie warrior.
This is a role which Angelina Jolie was born to play and reinvent. As if her cheekbones weren’t adequately prominent, they are rendered even more chiseled with prosthetics and CGI tweaking. She is adorned with iridescent contact lenses and outsized horns, conveying her primal nature. Credit master creature-design wizard, Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf in London”) for the visual enhancements.
Jolie’s performance is delicious. She brings a regal bearing, line-readings with elongated vowels, and an obvious sensuality to the character. Jolie carefully avoids anything that remotely approaches overacting.
“Maleficent” is Joe Stromberg’s directorial debut. Previously he had been production designer on Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great.” It was a good background for helming a film, which relies so heavily on the visual motif of the film. “Maleficent” emerges as a nearly seamless marriage of live action and CGI. This is best epitomized by the forest that separates the Stefan’s and Maleficent’s respective realms. The cinematography by Dean Semler (Apocalypto), the production design by Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole along with the visual effects by Carey Villegas, costume design by Anna B. Sheppard, and score by James Newton Howard create an impressive package.
The beautifully mounted “Maleficent” reminds us that there are two sides to every story.
*** PG (for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images) 97 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback