What a curious beastie is Maleficent, Disney’s revisionist account of the evil fairy who dooms a princess to eternal slumber in the 1959 animation Sleeping Beauty.
“Curious beastie” is how Maleficent refers with fascination and puzzlement to the child Aurora, whom she cursed at her Christening, as she grows into a teenager while coming closer to the finger-prick destiny of the well-known fairy tale.
But it also applies to this dark, strangely lumbering tale — in tone and often-frustratingly dim lighting made even worse by 3D glasses — which swings from initial whimsy to despair and regret without managing that magical Disney-style enchantment.
It’s also punctuated with fierce clashes with terrifying mythic creatures that could be too intense for many young viewers.
With its opening line, “Let us tell an old story anew,” Maleficent echoes The Wizard of Oz companion tale Wicked, a chance for a “bad” character to explain her side of things. Certainly Maleficent, whose very name invokes menace, was the most interesting, full-blooded character among Sleeping Beauty’s pastel cast, making her ideal fodder for a revisit.
But before she was labeled evil (or maybe she was just drawn that way), young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) was an outgoing, sweet-tempered orphan fairy, seemingly the only one of her horned kind, soaring on massive wings over her beloved moors and all the fanciful creatures living there.
Things change with the arrival of Stefan, a human Maleficent’s own age from a nearby kingdom where avarice and ambition is the norm. In this fairy tale, boys and even princes aren’t the ones who come to the rescue, even if there is a white charger involved. They form a friendship that deepens into something more.
When Angelina Jolie finally bursts onscreen midflight as the mighty and mature Maleficent, there is nobody else. Even if the stilted CGI trickery sometimes fails her, winged Maleficent is magnificent, bellowing warnings to those who threaten her moors.
With cheekbones so sharp they could plane lumber and vermilion lips standing out against vaguely fetish-wear costumes, everything pales next to those great curling horns that arc from her skull. She delights in her power. Occasionally, she’s even amusing, a complex character with a well-explored past. If only the rest of the movie lived up to her.
A battle with an army from the kingdom across the moors heightens Maleficient’s resolve to keep the humans at bay. But her trust in one of them ends in betrayal, stripping her of her massive wings, leaving her wounded and hardened. She vows revenge, walling up her land with thorns and her heart with bitterness.
Stefan (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), now grown, becomes king and has a child. Maleficent crashes her Christening and you know the rest. Only true love’s kiss can break the sleeping curse she invokes over the baby’s cradle, and Maleficent has every good reason to view that as the greatest fairy tale of all.
For at least part of Maleficient, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King) appears anxious to leave all that “someday my prince will come” jazz in the dust, while staying visually true to the animated Sleeping Beauty in ways that will make those familiar with the original smile with recognition.
As in the original, Maleficent is teamed with a raven. Diaval (Sam Riley, Control) is far more personable than the foul squawker of old and he has shape-shifting powers that often see him take on human form.
The familiar three fairies who bestow gifts on the baby Aurora in her cradle (here played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple in a vaguely creepy bit of CGI trickery) get expanded roles as comic relief, caring for the young Aurora in a secret forest cottage away from the palace and all contact with spinning wheels in hopes of avoiding her curse.
Look for the next generation of screen stars in the toddler Aurora, played by Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. She was the only youngster who was able to be on set with Maleficent without panicking at the great horned presence.
Elle Fanning (Ginger and Rosa, Super 8) plays the teenage Aurora, who takes her fairy-bestowed blessing to “always be happy” a bit too far, perpetually grinning with enthusiasm at every opportunity. A trusting sort, she forms an unexpected bond with Maleficent, nonplussed by her arching black horns and strange gimlet eyes, seeing instead her fairy godmother.
In truth, Aurora isn't far off the mark. Maleficent feels growing affection for her "beastie" and regrets actions taken in anger.
First-time director Robert Stromberg, who comes from the production design side of filmmaking where he picked up Oscars for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, is more about visuals than storytelling, and that lack of cohesion costs Maleficent where it counts.