The genesis of the "Sleeping Beauty" fable goes back over three hundred years, beginning with French writer Charles Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormant" in 1697, and later adapted into the Brothers Grimm's famous fairytale "Little Briar Rose" in 1812 and an animated Disney classic from 1959. In providing a modern spin that breeds the story of old with a revisionist twist, live-action/CG extravaganza "Maleficent" is told from the point of view of the malevolent sorceress who reigns down a devastating curse on Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning). If fans of "Sleeping Beauty" think they know the whole story, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (2010's "Alice in Wonderland
") makes sure this is definitely not the case. While this new reimagining averts from expectations, the decidedly rushed storytelling and sometimes garish aesthetic compromise what might have been a more noteworthy triumph. That leaves Angelina Jolie (2010's "Salt
") to spice things up with what is destined to become one of the most defining film roles of her career.
In a bucolic land of two kingdomsone made up of humans led by a king and queen, and the other populated by magical creatures and no hierarchya young boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) meets winged fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) after crossing into her threshold. As the years go by, friendship gradually turns to love before the two are torn apart by their respective kingdoms' rising contention. Worse, Maleficent's entire outlook on the world changes in an instant when Stefan, overcome by his desire to take the place of the dying King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), severs her wings and passes them off as proof that he killed her. Stripped of her identity as a fairy, she becomes helplessly bitter and vengeful, striking down a severe brand of retribution by cursing Stefan's eventual newborn daughter, Aurora. She may be blessed with beauty and happiness, but what Aurora does not realize as she grows up in the ill-fitted care of aunties Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) is the never-ending, death-like sleep which awaits her by the sunset of her 16th birthday.
The directorial debut of production designer Robert Stromberg (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful
"), "Maleficent" incorporates all of the cornerstones of the legendrest assured, Aurora still falls into a seemingly eternal rest after being pricked on the finger by the spindle of a spinning wheeland then builds around it a story of loss, betrayal and redemption which casts Maleficent in a newfound light. At 97 minutes, the story beats feel rushed at times, the editing too quick to want to scurry to the next scene without allowing the characters and relationships to percolate and deepen with the resonance they should. The music score by composer James Newton Howard (2013's "After Earth
") isn't offered its rightful showcase at the onset, the film foregoing so much as a title card when an opening credits sequence would have more effectively invited audiences into this filmic fantasy world. The computer-generated effects work is professional and occasionally bold, but also on the overblown side, much of the landscapes looking exactly like places living only in a computer. Meanwhile, the creature designs (minus the title figure herself, who looks extraordinary) strike as a touch unrefined verging on the lumbering and juvenile. In miniature fairy form, Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit are off-putting, while an early battle scene boils down to a fight between medieval soldiers and what can best be described as tree roots.
Where the picture overcomes its hurried pacing can be boiled down to two words: Angelina Jolie. If every great actor gets a chance to portray a number of varied roles in their lifetime, they usually are best remembered for only a couple. One of those for Jolie will indisputably be Maleficent. This is a part she was born to play, imbuing her every moment with a flurry of emotions ranging from passionate, to wounded, to outraged, to joyfully devious, to regretful. The crucial christening scene wherein she crashes King Stefan's celebration and uses baby Aurora to single-handedly make him sorry he ever crossed her thunders with all the electricity and scorn one anticipates. Maleficent's backstory gives her a chance to grow beyond being a maniacal vixen with horns and a black cloak, however, and it is on this personal journey where things get more interesting.
As the teenage Aurora, Elle Fanning (2011's "Super 8
") is all angelic innocence and light, a beacon of goodness who, unfortunately, does not enter the film until it is roughly halfway over. Sharlto Copley (2013's "Oldboy
") tries to give King Stefan multiple layers as he experiences shame and the knowledge of his wrongdoings in the name of greed and power, but there isn't enough time afforded for him to make a lasting mark. In the oddball but oddly touching role of Diaval, a black crow whom Maleficent transforms into her human-looking minion, Sam Riley (2011's "Brighton Rock
") is eye-catching, blending the untamed with the sympathetic. Positioned as Aurora's potential true love, Prince Phillip, Brenton Thwaites (2014's "Oculus
") is barely there, popping up much too briefly to make any impression other than that he seems more dorky than conventionally dashing.
In "Maleficent," Prince Phillip is hastily dropped along the sidelines for a reason: the film, unlike its animated counterpart, is not about romantic love at all. In building a fresh mythology, director Robert Stromberg has made a fairytale not only of darkness, but of hope, and not only of good vs. evil, but of the goodness that even those seen as evil are capable of possessing. And, if the finished product would have ultimately excelled were its componentsthe characters, the plot, the visual conception, the technical creditsbeen given additional breathing room to burgeon and flourish, this does not take anything away from Angelina Jolie's indelible depiction of a misunderstood woman who loses her soul for a time to the unfair cruelties of the world. In her relationship with Aurora, first as a creepy eavesdropper and then as a sort of godmotherly figure with ulterior motives, Maleficent is met with a crisis of conscience far more complicated than anything the villainess faced in "Sleeping Beauty." It is this element that gives the valiant but admittedly choppy "Maleficent" its significance as more than merely a by-the-numbers remake.