As a vengeful forest fairy sporting giant wings, sinuous black horns and cheekbones sharp enough to slice any adversary to bits, Angelina Jolie kills it as the title character in “Maleficent.” The rest of this live-action spin on the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” doesn’t match her presence and performance, but it does bend some tired old formulas.
The story begins promisingly, with the young Maleficent as a wild child growing up on the moors in the more magical of two adjacent enemy kingdoms amid scary monster trees and gentle, chortling fungi. She falls for a pinch-faced human boy named Stefan who commits a colossal act of betrayal and absconds to the other side. After Stefan (Sharlto Copley) becomes king and has a baby daughter named Aurora, justifiably bitter Maleficent casts a curse dooming the girl to perpetual sleep once she turns 16. Events conspire to throw Princess Aurora (a beautifully bland Elle Fanning) and her witchy foe together.
Not content to simply revel in the chance to play a cartoonish baddie, Jolie takes her role seriously — but not too much. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, toddler Aurora (played by the star’s own child, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) coos and cuddles up to Maleficent, who sternly calls the child “beastie” but momentarily softens her expression. She’s a villain who can’t be pigeonholed as all evil, or incapable of change — a great example for kids in our age of political polarization.
Despite momentum at the outset, visual lushness throughout, a barrage of special effects and Jolie’s formidable appeal, “Maleficent” fails to fully engage. Director Robert Stromberg is a visual-effects veteran both of action films (“The Hunger Games,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”) and magical suspense (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). Here, neither are on display, as an overabundance of messy action scenes flatten the mood.
The other characters are superficially drawn. A well-cast trio of pastel-hued guardian fairies named Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistletwit (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) bring an inadequate measure of comic relief.
It’s refreshing to see a modern kid-targeted movie show restraint on the yuk-yuk jokes. But the action overkill could have been balanced with a bit more humor, as when the young Maleficent says to a mushroom man in the woods, “Hi, Mr. Chanterelle — I like your cap,” and more character development.
From Stefan to Maleficent’s right-hand guy, Diaval (Sam Riley), and a handsome young prince who fleetingly shows up to woo Aurora (Elle Fanning), the men are mostly peripheral players. In the end, the “true love” Aurora finds is a sweet surprise for both her and the audience.
Motivated by the box-office gold of female-driven kid flicks like “Frozen,” Disney continues to stretch traditional boundaries. But like Sleeping Beauty lying in her coma, “Maleficent” is mesmerizing to behold, and hard to fully embrace.