For all the pixie dust and dragon fire in Maleficent, the most special effect throughout is Angelina Jolie, radiating imperious authority over a disorderly movie.
This is the sort of magnetism for which the term "movie star" was coined, draped in accoutrements of immediate iconography. Perhaps only Angie could pull off the horns-and-taloned wings look so well.
Maleficent is a daring bit of fairy tale revision, rehabilitating one of the Disney canon's most diabolical villains, who placed the curse on Sleeping Beauty. In screenwriter Linda Woolverton's version, Maleficent has good reason to cast the spell, and misgivings later. True love's kiss is something very different here, an appreciated tweak to a legend gone stale.
So, first-time director Robert Stromberg has a diva-nova perfect for a movie built around her, and a new direction for classic material. And here is where Stromberg's inexperience likely hampers the results, not so much for what is on the screen as his easy compliance with studio meddling. Maleficent feels spit-balled into more directions than barely 90 minutes of story time can adequately cover. It's once upon a time, happily ever after and a lot of undeveloped drama in between.
For example, there must be grand action to sell male moviegoers, so a vague rivalry exists between a kingdom of humans and the enchanted moors Maleficent protects (yes, she's a tree hugger, too). The resulting battle is Lord of the Rings stuff, with gnarled root warriors riding giant warthogs and Maleficent swooping in for kills.
At this point it should be noted that Maleficent is the grimmest of fairy tales, with an extraordinary body count for any movie rated PG. We learn that touching iron burns fairies, leading to a scene of torture. Much of the drama occurs in gloom that may frighten or bore young moviegoers. Nothing is comical enough to be considered relief.
Since Maleficent is made sympathetic, the villainy requirement falls to King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), formerly her friend and now a betrayer. Copley takes that responsibility a bit too seriously, one snarl shy of Snidely Whiplash and needing a bath. Stefan never gives the impression that he's a match for Maleficent, so Stromberg mostly steers clear until his cliched comeuppance.
We're left with the most unappealing aspect of Maleficent, a trio of fairies mostly played by the faces of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple poorly superimposed on flitting Tinker Bell bodies. It's a clumsy effect for such an expensive production, obvious as the seams showing in superimposed enchanted backgrounds. Stromberg's movie works better in the dark.
If you're wondering why Sleeping Beauty herself hasn't been mentioned so far, then we've reached a central disappointment of Maleficent. Princess Aurora is nearly an afterthought in Woolverton's story, a catalyst for Maleficent's softening more than anything. As such, Elle Fanning doesn't appear in the role until the final act, with little to portray beyond innocence.
That quality is thankfully absent from Jolie's performance, which should be hailed as a miracle of movie rescue, both valiant and viciously elegant. Behind those contact-lensed eyes and prosthetic cheekbones, beneath those unfortunate horns, Jolie invests surprising humanity in a character long considered the epitome of evil. Maybe next she'll convince us the Big Bad Wolf was framed.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.