Let it go — if you’re expecting another Disney movie in which the focus, and the title, belong to a princess named Elsa or Snow White or Cinderella or even Aurora.
The studio flips the tale over and puts the emphasis on “Maleficent,” the malevolent fairy who places a curse on a king’s newborn daughter on her christening day. Generations of moviegoers or VHS or DVD watchers remember that from the Disney cartoon, “Sleeping Beauty,” made for a whopping $6 million and first released in 1959.
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley.
Rating: PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.
But as the narrator tells us in the opening moments of the film, “Let us tell an old story anew, and we will see how well you know it.” For one thing, it’s live-action rather than animated, although with lots of digital wizardry, and stars Angelina Jolie as the adult Maleficent.
We first meet Maleficent as a young fairy soaring over the magical moors she calls home with magnificent black wings; they make her look like an angel, despite the pointy ears and horns sprouting from her head. She is kindhearted, though, and befriends a poor orphaned human, Stefan, who grows increasingly ambitious and hungry for power.
In a bid to win the king’s favor and the chance to wear the crown himself, an adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) betrays and wounds Maleficent and sets the stage for her heart to harden.
When she later appears at a celebration for Stefan’s infant daughter, Maleficent has been transformed into a villainess, with a pool of black fabric trailing behind her, eyes glowing, sharply angled cheekbones and smoke rising around her.
She puts a spell on baby Aurora, who is placed in the care of three squabbling, inept pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple channeling the Three Stooges) for safekeeping. But, in spite of herself, Maleficent is drawn to the “little beastie,” as she so endearingly calls her.
But there is her nagging curse that the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep, to be broken only by a true love’s kiss. That sets the stage for a pull-out-the-stops showdown and throwdown, complete with a dragon belching fire, and surprising variation on living happily ever after.
Ms. Jolie has been so much in the news for other reasons, from her courageous medical choices, brood with Brad Pitt and “Unbroken” directing project, that you forget what a commanding presence she is on screen.
At times the picture of evil, the Oscar-winning actress must allow you to see the flicker of vulnerability in Maleficent’s eyes and to grasp her physical and emotional pain along with the growing affection she tries so hard to conceal.
Production designer turned director Robert Stromberg, working from a screenplay by Linda Woolverton, mitigates Maleficent’s pronouncement to the baby of “I hate you,” with the adorable infant’s oblivious smile.
Little Aurora is played by various girls, including very briefly Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, although Elle Fanning inherits the role as a teen and gets the most screen time. With her long blond hair, girlish giggle and sense of wonder, she is the light to Maleficent’s darkness and they make a good movie match.
Traditionalists can be assured that a bonnie Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites) appears but his role factors into a lovely modern makeover that women and girls may cheer.
A reunion years in the making is given short shrift, although one of the parties has gone ’round the bend by that time, and for a release rated PG, it’s dark and violent at times. It stages a pair of battles and follows the usual Disney playbook by endangering parents on and off screen.
The movie uses humor sparingly and saves the haunting rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” by Lana Del Rey for the end credits. Even the usual sidekick — a raven who can turn into a man (Sam Riley) or wolf or other creature at Maleficent’s behest — is more companion and conscience than wisecracker.
“Maleficent” is most innovative at the start, entertaining in the middle and typical in a noisy, scary castle confrontation near the end. All along the way, though, it challenges moviegoers about labels of heroes and villains and just who we are silently cheering.
As Cruella De Vil, Scar and the Queen in “Snow White” have taught us, villains are often the most memorable characters but they rarely get a backstory or chance at redemption — until now.
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