May 30, 2014: Linda Woolverton’s semi-feminist retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, directed with vim and wit by Robert Stromberg, is from the point of view of the sleeper rather than the sleeper. The original yarn, first adapted by Disney for the screen in 1959, is about a wicked witch who curses the princess Aurora to prick her finger on a spindle on her sixteenth birthday and fall into a deep sleep, only to be awakened by true love’s kiss. The animated movie retained the basic elements of the fairy tale and left no doubt about the dastardliness of Maleficent and her raven sidekick. Angelina Jolie can’t match the hideous cackle of Maleficent voice artist Eleanor Audley, but she doesn’t need to. Maleficent is the back story of a witch who actually isn’t one.
The Disney reboot bows down before the screen presence of the marquee name headlining the cast. Jolie, dangerously thin and thinly dangerous, glides through Maleficent like a Goth goddess, wearing her black robes like a red-carpet gown and her horns like a tiara. Her cheek bones appear as though they might cut through her skin and she does a few nasty things, but vengeance, rather than innate rottenness, is behind her actions. The inhabitant of a magical forest was badly betrayed by Aurora’s father Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and she makes sure to land up at the christening of his newborn daughter to place the curse that no force on earth, not even herself, can lift.
This is a film about second chances, and Maleficent and her pet raven Diaval, who assumes human form to become Sam Riley, have several of them when they track down Aurora (Elle Fanning), who has been spirited away by three dithering good fairies to a forest hut for her protection.
This is also a film about role reversals, so Aurora turns out to the younger version of Maleficent, takes the black-robed one to be her fairy godmother and befriends Diaval as one might a stray dog.
Stromberg, a veteran visual effect designer, matches Woolverton’s flights of fancy with imaginative backdrops and adorable jungle creatures. There is true magic in the staging of the striking special effects, but not enough in the characterization, especially of Stefan’s one-note king, and the good fairies, played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. A literal and symbolic loss of a key power early on in the film dictates its half-subversive and half-safe tilt. The reboot’s real interest is in conjuring up a tender relationship between a fairy, a princess and a crow, with enough twists to save a well-worn fairy tale from the curse of overuse.