There are some actors who, before you even see them in a role, make you say, “Yup. That is an inspired casting choice.” Johnny Depp as Captain Jack comes to mind. And Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man.
Is there any character Angelina Jolie could ever play that suits her better than Maleficent, the evil queen at the heart of Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty? And, while we’re at it, are there many directors who would be better-suited for the task of making the movie than the guy who won back-to-back Oscars for his production design of Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland?
No and no.
That’s not to say Maleficent isn’t without its faults—some minor, some major—but as popcorn-friendly summer fare goes, you could do a lot worse.
To be honest, Disney would have been perfectly within its rights to pull a Lee Daniels or Tyler Perry and call this what it is: Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. There may be a combined five minutes when she’s not on screen, but even more than that, Jolie’s performance is so powerful (and delightfully drole) that she not only steals the movie from everyone and everything around her, she doesn’t leave much at all in her wake.
Borrowing a page from the Wicked and/or Oz: The Great and Powerful playbooks, Maleficent explains to us all how the evil queen isn’t that evil after all; she’s just misunderstood. And is, in fact, the victim of the story. Sleeping Beauty Revisited, this is not. The climactic finger-prick on the spinning wheel happens within a half-hour of the end credits, and the beauty named Aurora (Elle Fanning) is actually sleeping for maybe five minutes of screen time.
Instead, we begin with Maleficent as a young fairy girl keeping watch over her kingdom, while in the next town over, those nasty humans are getting more and more threatening every day. I won’t go into details about what goes wrong and makes her turn to the Dark Side, but suffice to say you, too, would be dressing in black and hurling all kinds of nasty potions and spells at people.
Director Robert Stromberg’s 25-year career in visual effects and production design is on full display here, and though this marks his directorial debut, it’s a better-than-average bow. Evoking The Lord of the Rings at some times and Avatar at others, Maleficent is full of glittering fairies, rampaging tree-creatures, dragon fire, wispy spells, and some of the most breath-taking scenery put on film. It’s a true feast for the senses, particularly the eyes. And ears, too, with James Newton Howard’s haunting score and Timothy Nielsen’s epic sound design.
The script by Linda Woolverton (Alice in Wonderland) is where the cracks start to show. Some characters are just a little too rote for their own good, and then there’s the whole issue of the climactic finale, which could have been avoided if a certain character just looked around a little.
Jolie, though, succeeds in holding the entire thing together; her powerful performance is equal parts wry, fierce, and haunting—never cheesy or over-the-top. And her own personal makeup design for Maleficent (blood red lips, alabaster white teeth, and razor-sharp cheekbones) only adds to the spell that the movie is sure to put you under.
Note: For what it’s worth, Maleficent is rated PG, but it’s a lot closer to PG-13 than G—there are plenty of intense battles and fairly scary looking creatures. It’s also no secret that Jolie had to bring in her own five-year-old daughter to play young Aurora, because all the other kids they auditioned couldn’t do the scene without being scared out of their wits at Jolie’s makeup.