After you watch Maleficent, come back and listen to Dana Stevens and Vanity Fair's Katey Rich discuss the movie in our Spoiler Special.
“This curse will last until the end of time!” howls Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, placing a fatal hex on the baby who will one day become Sleeping Beauty—and we take her at her word. Such is Jolie’s power to command authority—with or without the horned helmet, digitally sharpened cheekbones, and outsized fluorescent-green eyes—that no audience member doubts for a second that curse is staying put. Disney’s Maleficent, a mildly feminist revision of the “Sleeping Beauty” story, understands this power of Jolie’s and exploits it beautifully. This is really a movie about the evil spell Jolie casts on us—it’s both a celebration and a demonstration of her formidable movie star might.
That’s not to say that Jolie is the only thing to like about Maleficent. There’s also Elle Fanning as Aurora, the guileless princess cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel at 16—a role that could easily have been cloying, and might have been in less capable hands. But the 16-year-old Fanning has a childlike freshness and simplicity that make her joy at watching rainbow-colored sprites skimming over forest pools seem utterly plausible (not a negligible task given that the rainbow sprites were created in postproduction, and she was probably watching a tennis ball on a stick). Maleficent doesn’t skimp on the rainbow sprites, mushroom-hatted trolls, or clouds of fluttering blue butterflies, which is another thing to appreciate about it, despite its manifold hokinesses. In an era when fairy-tale adaptations are supposed to be Goth or steampunk or otherwise stylish and doomy, this movie dares to delight in some of the same elements of fairy tales actual children delight in: magic and witches and kings in ermine-trimmed red robes and ladies with conical veiled hats and yes, goddammit, fairies.
The queen of those fairies—and pretty much the undisputed ruler of everything in sight—is Maleficent, who, as we learn in the origin story that begins the film, wasn’t always maleficent with a small “m” (raising questions about her late parents’ naming practices—“Honey, do you think it’s a problem that our child’s name is synonymous with ‘nefarious,’ ‘reprobate,’ and ‘wicked’?” “Stop quibbling! It sounds pretty!”). Once upon a time, she was an orphan fairy girl (Isobelle Molloy and Ella Purnell) who lived alone high in a tree and soared above the moors on spectacular (and gorgeously animated) wings. Her romantic friendship with a human boy she meets in the woods, Stefan (Michael Higgins and Toby Regbo), promises to be the link that will broker peace between the human and fairy worlds. But when Stefan grows up (and becomes Sharlto Copley of District 9) he enters into an alliance with the evil king who seeks to destroy Maleficent. (Now that she has achieved Jolie-hood, the nature fairy has become the ruler of her own kingdom, by dint, it would seem, of sheer awesomeness.)
Stefan, who has his eye on the throne himself, is tasked with the killing of his former childhood friend—but the worst he can bring himself to do is to put her to sleep with a potion and cut off her wings. It’s to Jolie’s credit that she plays the scene in which she awakes to discover this atrocity naturalistically, with raw screams of rage and disbelief. It’s the fairy equivalent of waking up to find yourself suddenly paraplegic, and the horror Maleficent expresses at the theft of her most used limbs makes her subsequent turn to evil understandable.
The film’s second half—after Stefan ascends to the throne, fathers the unlucky Aurora, and sees her cursed by Maleficent at her christening—contains a few too many moments we’ve seen in other pop fairy-tale reworkings like Wicked, Brave, and Frozen, which also show archetypal female villains (the witch, the Snow Queen, the controlling mother) as wronged, complicated, and vulnerable women. But just when the movie’s energy begins to flag—the subplot about King Stefan going slowly insane is particularly heavy-going, and way overplayed by Copley—Elle Fanning arrives as the now-teenage Aurora, and the growing connection between this happy, laughing girl and the icily withdrawn Maleficent becomes the focus of the story. I won’t give away how that relationship develops, because its emotional arc was the element of the film that most surprised me. To the extent this is a feminist film—and remember I qualified that term above with “mildly”—it’s one because it recognizes the complexity and the significance of the love between women. If anything, you could complain that it’s the male characters, especially the preening Stefan, who are given short shrift.
As in the 1959 Disney Sleeping Beauty, there is a trio of sweet but squabbling good fairies who care for the baby Aurora, here played by digitally shrunk-down versions of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple. Maleficent disposes of the services of an army of benevolent-but-fierce tree creatures that fall somewhere in between the Ents of The Lord of the Rings and the rock monsters of Noah, as well as a raven-turned-man helper, played by Sam Riley, who’s markedly less grating than your garden-variety sidekick, and whose no-big-deal transformations from bird to man and back again make for a passably nifty special effect.
Maleficent doesn’t reinvent any wheels when it comes to the fairy-tale genre—but the fairy tale already comes with pretty hardy wheels, and this sweet, child-friendly adaptation creaks along on them quite nicely. The entire time I was watching it, I wished my 8-year-old was by my side, and that doesn’t happen often in this age of bombastic, overlong, mayhem-laden kids’ entertainments. The film was directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, a production designer who has worked on some of the most bombastic and overlong among them, including Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful. But here he’s served by something those movies didn’t have: a screenplay (by Linda Woolverton, who wrote Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) with some grasp of the archetypal power of the story it’s reworking. Most of all, though, Maleficent has Angelina Jolie, the only actress who could make zooming above the clouds on 5-foot wings seem like something she just casually fits in between serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador and raising six children with Brad Pitt.