Once upon a time, a fairy girl, Maleficent, and a human boy, Stephan, dared to breach the boundary separating their two worlds, and they became extremely close. As the human boy grew into a man, he became ambitious and took to the service of his king; as the fairy girl matured, she remained the protector of her fairy kin but longed for Stephan’s return to her world. After an unprovoked battle by the mortal kingdom against the fairy border, the human army is decimated and their king placed upon his deathbed after succumbing to the retaliation of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). When the dying king offers his throne in exchange for revenge, Stephan (Sharlto Copley) returns to his childhood friend but betrays her, leaving her devastated and abandoned. Maleficent reciprocates at the christening of King Stefan’s first- born, cursing the infant princess to a terrible fate that only a vague notion of true love might undo. In the years waiting for the curse to be effected, Maleficent begins to question her vengeance against the blossoming but innocent Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) while the man who truly deserves her ire prepares for the day he knows the dark fairy will come for him at last.
There were so many ways for this live-action retelling to go horribly wrong, and yet it remains surprisingly faithful to the original while recreating the title character as an infinitely more complex creature. Angelina Jolie proves her acting mettle in every glance, speaking volumes without saying a word; it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this part after seeing what Jolie brought to the role. Likewise, Aurora’s demotion from the main character to supporting cast member neither undermines her nor renders her irrelevant, re-purposing her through Elle Fanning’s portrayal as the instrument that un-blackens a heavy heart. Sharlto Copley plays the mad king well, a man obsessed with keeping his power received through betrayal. Sam Riley adds a wonderfully additional foil to Maleficent’s darker moods as Diaval – a rescued raven she can command and turn into a man or anything else she might find readily useful. While the cast alone put the film on the right track, it’s a combination of all the elements both behind and in front of the camera that bring the movie into perfect focus.
The production design, cinematography, and unblemished CGI effects fill in all the remaining elements needed to complete the atmosphere of the story – the human kingdom overshadowed by the king’s castle, the stone guardians that mark the border to the fairylands, a spellbinding magical world forbidden to the human populace, and all manner of creatures to populate this magical world. It’s all mostly computer-generated, of course, but it plays perfectly to the fantasy and fears of the characters involved in the story as a character itself. If “Maleficient” a bit, it’s in the editing where some of the scenes could have done with a more seamless continuity. Also, visual effects wizard, Robert Stromberg, directing his first feature film, tends to stumble a tad while handling the plot transitions between drama and action. Barring this visible glitch, he shows good promise and does a decent job of narrating the plot.
There’s a moment that defines the mood of the entire film – hinted at in the preview trailers – where Aurora asks her dark watcher to come out and face her, saying, “I know who you are.” Maleficent seems delighted to be recognized for the antagonist she perceives herself to be, stepping into the light to take a wicked bow. When Aurora surprises the dark fairy with her reaction, Jolie utters a spot-on repartee without sacrificing a hint of her intensity, a wonderful character reveal that she can still be surprised so deep into her dark transformation, alluding to the distinct possibility that beneath all those dark layers her purity and goodness might still be hidden somewhere.
With wanton dark material for a story adapted from a children’s tale and willing to stay true to it, “Maleficent” walks a balanced line between revealing the darkness in the light and finding the light in the darkness. So what if the dark fairy isn’t quite as irredeemable as her Disney animated counterpart; it’s just as satisfying watching Maleficent give her oppressors all the rope they need to hang themselves with.
8 out of 10 stars