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DIRECTOR: Robert Stromberg
CAST: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple
CLASSIFICATION: 7-9 PG V
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
THE DISNEY logo comes up, fireworks go off over Cinderella’s castle and then the camera zooms in, flying over the castle and on to the valley and the moor beyond.
This tells us we are going to be in Disney country all right, and as a narrator tells us a detail-lite, rather useless potted history of the supposed fight between the kingdom of the humans and the moor-living fairy folk, we are treated to a visual feast.
We are introduced to the fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Moloy as the younger version), the most powerful fairy with magnificent wings who protects the enchanted realm.
She befriends the human boy Stephan (Michael Higgins as the teen version), hungry for not only friendship and understanding but, as it turns out, power.
As Stephan’s quest not to remain powerless and poor takes him further into the world of humans, Maleficent grows up into Angelina Jolie, not exactly wise to the ways of humans, but magically powerful.
It is when the pair reunite as adults that things go pear-shaped, and anyone familiar with the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty can see where this is going.
The evil fairy Maleficent – who is painted as more confused woman scorned than evil per se – curses the newborn child of the king (yep, Stephan did it), who sends the sprog off into the forest with three fumbling fairies.
Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple are funny as Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistletwit, but we don’t see too much of them because this is Maleficent’s story, and specifically it is about her relationship with Princess Aurora (Fanning).
Fanning is sweet as the teenage princess, bubbly and totally naive, charming even the angry fairy Maleficent.
A welcome amelioration of the Sleeping Beauty story is the decision to give Maleficent’s raven a backstory. Or, if not exactly a backstory, at least a proper personality. Sam Riley plays Diaval, a raven turned human who becomes a sort of conscience to Maleficent.
Jolie is the lynchpin of this film though, reminding us that she is an Oscar-winning actress and not just a pretty face known for adopting children. Not only does she bring nuance and pathos to one of Disney’s scariest villains, but she brings humanity to essentially a non-human role.
She is a study in moral contradiction – she takes to calling the child Beastie, yet watches over her – which makes her the interesting character to watch.
While this storyline may take the villain out of the shadow and give her a non-evil beginning, painting her in shades of grey rather than strictly black and white evil or not, it is still a very Disney story. Even when it does not deal in absolutes it is highly simplified and glosses over the context of why the fairies and humans fight, or the motivation of the Stephan character.
Copley does not get half as much time to shape his character, who essentially is a major influence on Maleficent, so we have to take a lot on faith to explain his growing paranoia and eventual decision.
Director Robert Stromberg is light on detail and doesn’t meld all the story elements together, but the one thing he totally nails is the enchanting visuals. A special effects wizard who has worked on films like Avatar and Oz the Great and Powerful, Stromberg makes his directorial debut here, playing to his strengths, even if he does leave logic and plotting at the door.
Every scene is meticulously detailed and the artfully designed images of the moor populated by the fairy folk, are delightful, with pixies and nixies and brunies and all sorts of made up creatures floating through the air.
Some of the sequences closely mirror Sleeping Beauty, with characters dressed in similar clothing and standing in different poses – it is, after all, the same story, just told from another perspective.
For all that the trailer suggests it is creepy and dark, this film is very much family fare, the menace lies in the visuals rather than the intent of any character and there is nothing of Charles Perrault to be found. If you don’t know who that is, then this film is for you.
If you liked Oz the Great and Powerful or Winter’s Tale, you will like this.