Maleficent turns out to be a surprisingly heartfelt, visually ravishing Disney variation on Sleeping Beauty, with Angelina Jolie majestically commanding center stage as the deeply conflicted Maleficent (hence the name and the title).
The prologue introduces a young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy—seen to briefly), a powerful fairy living in the Moors, who meets an all-too-human peasant boy Stefan. They fall in love, but as time goes on, life gets in the way. The intolerant humans living nearby demand Maleficent’s head, particularly after a losing battle with the fairies, the idealistic Stefan morphs into an ambitious schemer whose desire to please the King leads him to reunite with the adult Maleficent (Ms. Jolie), wherein he assures her he is on her side–and then in a devastating scene, proceeds to drug her and violate her—by removing the wings that provide a great deal of her power. Just as Stefan has turned into an evil would-be ruler, Maleficent transforms into a vengeful queen who places a curse on King Stefan’s newborn daughter.
However, as vindictive as Maleficent is, she becomes quite fond of Aurora (Elle Fanning) and therein lies the twist to the tale. She develops maternal feelings toward the charming, if slightly bewildered Aurora (being raised in secrecy by three fairies) and at some point, must decide what to do about her curse. In the meantime, a progressively unhinged Stefan plots to retain his power and vanquish Maleficent.
This all makes for an engrossing, exciting, and occasionally moving cinematic experience. Unlike last year’s Oz: the Great and Powerful, Maleficent succeeds in immersing the viewer into this magical landscape. Under the direction of Robert Srromberg, the scenes with the fairies and humans are seamless, the battles well-imagined and executed, and the center of it all is Angelina Jolie as the beautifully regal, all too human Maleficent. The scenes where she “lets down her hair’ to Stefan is so poignant that her reaction to his betrayal is that much more intense and understandable. Even at her most “wicked,” Ms. Jolie never loses our sympathy, and her scenes with Miss Fanning are playful and touching. If there is a flaw to the film, it’s that her antagonist, the increasingly demented Stefan—as played and as written by Linda Woolverton—is a bit of a letdown, and nowhere near as powerful an opponent as he should be. It’s a flaw, but all is redeemed whenever Ms. Jolie enters the scene. If you like Angelina Jolie, you should see the film, and if you don’t…it’s still a truly enjoyable movie.