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Movie review: 'Maleficent'

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Maleficent

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Congratulations, Disney. Congratulations on taking your most evil, most popular, scariest villain and making her the opposite.

Not that “Maleficent” is that terrible a movie. But while some of the twists on the original “Sleeping Beauty” story are intriguing, this film never at any point feels like it’s the story of a fearsome villain, but rather a wronged woman who seeks feeble vengeance and then changes her mind.

Directed by Robert Stromberg, the film opens on Maleficent as a child (Isobelle Molloy). Maleficent is a beautiful fairy with strong wings, who is happy and has a close kinship with the other mystical creatures of the moors she lives in. Outside the moors is the human world, a kingdom ruled by a king who wants to lay claim to the moors as well.

As a child, Maleficent meets Stefan, a poor boy who lives in a barn and dreams of someday living in the castle. As the two grow older, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) falls in love with him, and believes he loves her too. And maybe he did—but when the dying king offers up his throne to whoever kills Maleficent, the temptation is too great.

Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is unable to bring himself to kill Maleficent though, so he instead cuts off her wings, which enrages her and turns her once pure heart to ice. Maleficent enlists a crow named Diaval (played in his human form by Sam Riley) to be her wings, and when he delivers the news that King Stefan and the Queen have had a baby girl, she sees her chance for revenge. At baby Aurora’s christening, Maleficent curses her, so that on her sixteenth birthday the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep, one that she can only be awakened from by true love’s kiss. But Maleficent, remembering the supposed true love’s kiss that Stefan gave her on her sixteenth birthday, knows that there is no such thing.

You may think you know the rest of the story from the Disney animated classic, but this movie turns much of it on its head. I guess it’s the trend now to make untraditional fairy tales, but this one is just too much. The first part of the movie, which explores a side of Maleficent we’ve never seen before, is great, and the reasons for her hardening make sense. But after Aurora’s birth, when we get to the part of the story that has been told before, it quickly becomes apparent that this Maleficent is not the evil villain from the original story, or even the one this movie’s trailers and marketing led us to expect. The extent of her evil is placing the curse on Aurora, something she later comes to deeply regret as she gets to know the girl and watch her grow up (teenage Aurora is played by the cheery and sweet Elle Fanning). After that, she gets her kicks playing pranks on Flittle, Knotgrass, and Thistletwit (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple), the fairies who raise—or at least attempt to raise—Aurora in a remote cottage in the woods, far from any spinning wheels.

The dynamic between Aurora and Maleficent is the most interesting part of the film. It isn’t immediately obvious why Maleficent is so attracted to the child, and feels the need to extend small anonymous gestures toward her, even at one point saving her life when she could have easily let her die. But this is because the good, pure-hearted Maleficent that we saw early on in the movie never truly died, and as much as she wants to hate Aurora, she cannot, especially as she watches way she has with the creatures of the moors, something she too once had before she cut herself off from them. There’s something sweet about it, and Jolie is very subtle in letting Maleficent’s love for the girl show through, just a bit.

Jolie is great in what few scenes she is allowed to be cruel, while Copley, always a brilliant actor, pulls off Stefan’s slow descent into madness with gusto. But there are glaring holes and disappointments in this movie as well, most of which occur in the climax. Fans will likely be disappointed by Maleficent’s dragon, while there are too many other questions left unanswered as well. It also becomes obvious that Stefan, not Maleficent, is the real villain in this story, which is pulled off with mixed results. Clearly, there had to be some sort of redemption for Maleficent in the end, regardless of whether she lived or died. But she is never truly evil, except in the christening scene, as mentioned before. Maybe it’s because Disney was aiming for a PG movie; maybe it’s because they just wanted to do something completely different. That’s the real failing of this movie: that it is supposed to be the origin story of a villain, but it is not.

Runtime: 97 minutes. Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.

Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:

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