You might forget the somniferous title character of Disney’s 1959 favorite Sleeping Beauty, you might forget her friendly fairy allies, you certainly might forget her crooning Prince. But few people who have seen that film are likely to have forgotten its horned sorceress Maleficent. This imperious, black-clad menace has long been rated among the all-time great screen villains.
Now, in a gesture that will likely cause traditionalists to bemoan the moral relativism of contemporary pop culture, she gets her own movie. Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, is both a backstory and a whitewash. It offers a coherent case for the spite which led her to curse the infant Princess Aurora, and it details her exculpatory relations with the adolescent Princess (Elle Fanning).
The script, by Linda Woolverton of Beauty and the Beast, takes most of the story’s actual wrongdoing off of Mallie’s shoulders and places it where it must, of course, ultimately belong—on a man. The trouble all starts because of the rat-fink behavior of Aurora’s dad Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who was Maleficent’s first love when she was a happy young fairy princess, spreading her wings. Circumstances later bring her into contact with Aurora, and lead her to repent her curse, but she finds she’s unable to revoke it. It’s one of the terrors that a fairy tale can dramatize better than almost any other form—that a momentary moral lapse may be impossible to come back from.
From its idyllic early scenes to its final battles, Maleficent has no shortage of Disney-style kitsch, banality and playing-it-safe platitudes. But the movie entertains anyway, and that’s almost entirely to Jolie’s credit. In an era when few screen actors, even talented ones, can lay claim to the title with confidence, she’s a true movie star. But it’s easy to forget that she’s also a real actress. She’s so inhumanly beautiful that it may be hard for her to find roles that fit her—wings and horns seem almost more plausible on her, somehow, than contemporary street clothes—but she was born to play this part, and it allows her to show off her way with a line, and her riveting poise.
There are other capable performances in the film. Copley, the striking fellow from the brilliant District 9, is striking again as the rotting-from-the-inside King, and Fanning’s Princess, who mistakes Maleficent for her Fairy Godmother, is amusing, mostly because her guileless glee is bounced off of Jolie’s dry reactions. If the kindly fairies—Juno Temple, Lesley Manville and the great Imelda Staunton—make less of an impression here, it may be because they get less interaction with the star. Almost certainly the best of Jolie’s foils is Sam Riley as Diaval, her shape-shifting servant and spy, who’s not afraid to give her backchat.
These filmmakers are to be commended for eschewing the standard, absolutist good-or-evil template usual to the Disney movies. It has to be said, though, that by turning Maleficent into a heroine, they’ve left a vacuum where the villainy should be that Copley’s King just doesn’t fill—he’s a despicable character, but not a strong one. The result is that the final clashes, though they carry plenty of high-fantasy spectacle and a lovely plot twist, aren’t deeply exciting.
There’s always been a certain ruthlessness to the way the classic Disney films engaged the base emotions of children—often through the death, or apparent death, of a beloved character, or by working up hatred toward a witch or other (often female) villain. Maleficent, like last year’s smash Frozen, is shaped as a fantasy for postmodern women and girls, and it wants to have it both ways—to enjoy the droll glamour and power of the sinister, but to take any deep evil out of it. The movie is rescued by the performance at its center, but ironically, in this tribute to the ultimate bad girl Jolie is finally forced to play a little too nice.