The villain of “Sleeping Beauty” gets to be the hero in smart (but visually hideous) story that injects post-“Frozen” female empowerment into an old chestnut
With “Maleficent,” we may be getting the closest Disney will ever come to “Ms. 45,” Abel Ferrara’s bloody cult favorite about a woman (Zoë Tamerlis Lund) hunting down and murdering the men who raped her. At the same time, it carries on in the “Frozen” tradition (no doubt coincidentally, since both films were in production at the same time) of liberating two-dimensional storybook characters from their shackles and allowing them to be as emotionally rich, heroic, and independent as their male counterparts.
The premise of turning the memorably wicked witch from “Sleeping Beauty” into a protagonist might seem like a gimmick that would quickly fizzle out, but screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“Beauty and the Beast”), with a great assist from Angelina Jolie, offers a “Wicked”-style do-over that results in a movie that’s as entertaining as it is bold.
While the visuals fall prey to some unpleasant trends in modern moviemaking — several CG characters have an ugly misshapenness that recalls “Jack the Giant Slayer,” and the magical forest lands resemble a toilet-paper commercial — “Maleficent” throws out much of the original tale’s bathwater without losing the baby.
It’s as a very young girl, in fact, that we first meet Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy, and then Ella Purnell as a teen). This winged, horned fairy lives in a magical, ruler-less kingdom where mythical creatures frolic, whereas the neighboring land is ruled over by the cruel and selfish King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). One day, a poor young boy named Stefan is caught stealing a jewel from the lake, and after Maleficent makes him return the stone, she befriends the boy, and over the years, they become friends and, in her eyes, romantically involved.
(The fact that “maleficent” is an actual adjective with an actual definition is never mentioned in the film, even though the character is, at first, sweet-natured and kind.)
When Maleficent grows to adulthood, King Henry tries to conquer her land, but she and the other creatures (including walking trees) repel his forces. On his deathbed, Henry (who has a daughter but no sons) vows to bequeath his crown to the man who can deliver him Maleficent’s head. Grown-up Stefan (Sharlto Copley) visits her and slips her a mickey; too cowardly to kill her in her sleep, he nonetheless violates her person by removing her wings and delivering them to Henry.
This evil act blackens Maleficent’s heart; she takes over the magical kingdom and surrounds it with thorns. And when word comes out that King Stefan and his wife have given birth to the princess Aurora, out comes the spinning-wheel curse.
Keeping a close eye on Aurora, with the help of her crow familiar Diaval (Sam Riley, “On the Road”), Maleficent winds up saving the baby’s life from neglect at the hands of her bumbling magical minders, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistletwit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville). Over time, it turns out not even Maleficent can hold a grudge for 16 years, but she’s made a curse so specific that not even she can unbreak it. Will this witch become the parent that teenage Aurora (Elle Fanning) has longed for her whole life, or will the sins of the past destroy everyone in both kingdoms?
If you’re expecting Jolie to deliver purring sarcasm in the pursed-lipped, raised-eyebrow mold of Agnes Moorehead on “Bewitched,” fear not — she absolutely does. Rest assured, however, that she offers up this character in many moods and modes, turning what was a striking but fairly single-minded villain into a fully fleshed-out woman. She has known pain and she has felt anger, yes, but she is also capable of love and compassion.
The rest of the characters, granted, seem mostly along just to keep the plot moving, but if you’re going to build a film around one character and one performance, Jolie’s turn as Maleficent makes such a strategy seem like a good idea.
The aggressively unpleasant visuals certainly detract from the overall film, but “Maleficent” makes for a fascinating entry in an ongoing wave of projects that give “bad” women of literature a chance to present their side of the story.