Directed by: Robert Stromberg
The Plot: There are two competing factions in the world. The kingdom of men and the magical kingdom of the moors. Entrusted with protecting the moors, a horned fairy named Maleficent, (Jolie) uses her powers to keep peace between the two realms. When she falls madly in love with a human boy she fails to insulate her heart properly against the whims and destructive proclivities inherent to the species. Betrayed by her one and only true love, her wings are amputated, and Maleficent's full power is turned toward seeking revenge against the kingdom of men who so screwed her over.
The Film: Hell hath no fury like a horned woman scorned. From 1959's release of Sleeping Beauty till now, 55 years later, Maleficent has been the poster child for chronic Disney villainy. She was both beauty and beast 36 years before the family entertainment titan released Beauty and the Beast.
The spookiest scene in the original Disney animated feature (relax parents, Maleficent is nowhere near as dark and scary as its animated predecessor) had Maleficent, through the use of an eerie green ball of light, separate Briar Rose from her 16th birthday party and loving family, and lead her in a trance through dark castle corridors and hallways to her doom at the point of a spindle. 2014's Maleficent takes the idea of the evil fairy separating the beautiful maiden from family - and flips the reasons around.
There are some nice twists to the retelling of this classic fairytale, and since one of the best things about Maleficent is discovering how they tweaked Sleeping Beauty, I'm going to keep from spoiling the surprises. I will only add that what they've chosen to do with Aurora's three protective, fairy god-mothers - renamed Thistlewhit, Knotgrass, and Flittle - is ticklish stuff.
What shouldn't be a surprise, however, is how genetically perfect for this part Angelina Jolie turned out to be. With cheek bones that you could crack eggs open on, and eyes roughly the diameter of disco balls, the actress already fits the physical criteria to play the fairy witch. Playing Maleficent is mostly how you carry yourself anyway, and Jolie does so with lupine grace and stature. The performance is pitch perfect. Not too showy. Not too heavy. With just the perfect note of wry humor.
This may seem off-topic for a family film review, but the early scenes in Maleficent where the character first discovers that her wings have been cut from her body, and later on in the film, when she's discussing the loss of her ability to fly with Aurora, you might remember that the actress had her breasts removed in a double mastectomy last year. If you read the pain on this character's face as legitimate, that's because underneath those wonderful prosthetic horns and behind all that make-up, it most assuredly is. In fact, one of the biggest issues with Maleficent as a feature film is that Jolie is so good the performances around her never quite rise to the same level.
Elle Fanning's Aurora is a lovely girl. She's genuine and naive, and when she smiles she uses her entire body. If she were a dog, she'd be the type of dog lying in a corner. The type of dog whose tail would immediately begin thumping against the floor the instant you accidentally glanced in its direction. Aurora just needs a pat on the head and a magical kingdom to wander through. She receives both.
Sharlto Copley is problematic. I'd love to leave it at that, but since his character is pretty much essential to the film his issues can't be ignored. He's not wrong for the part, as much as the part is all wrong anyway. It would be tough for anyone to sell this character given the limited amount of time they had - Maleficent runs at a crisp, compact time of 97 minutes. It literally takes less time to watch the film than it does to write a 2,000 word manifesto condemning it. Your appreciation for Maleficent will have much to do with your ability to deal with Copley's character arc. If Robert Stromberg had dedicated just ten more minutes of the movie to King Stefan, he might have smacked a home run on his first step up to the director's plate.
As it stands, tragically, Maleficent isn't a home run.
For a Disney film it doesn't have the pop-factor of Frozen. It may inspire the next generation of Robert Smiths and Siouxie Siouxs to apply that first black patch of eyeliner, but it's not going to press platinum records like Disney's last animated outing did. It is, however, easily digestible to its grade school target audience. Elder Disneyphiles might appreciate the classic (read: simplistic) structuring of good vs. evil - even when this film's central villain is grossly overcooked - but you might find yourself caught between what story levers won't totally work for you as an adult, and what would have been perfectly acceptable when you were seven.
The Verdict: Not that any of this matters. Most parents just want to know if Maleficent will scare their kids - it shouldn't. Or if it will get on their nerves - it won't. For most of its svelte running time Maleficent does exactly what it's supposed to do. It's enchanting and capricious, and mostly on the up-and-up. If you're a fan of this Disney villain, you should be more than satiated by Angelina Jolie's portrayal of her. In fact, she's pretty much the entire reason to give this movie your attention. Which makes sense. It's her name on the marquee anyway.