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In an era of movie redundancy and repetition, I suppose it’s
pointless to question why we need a new, variant telling of Sleeping Beauty, based on the 1959 Walt
Disney animated feature. In any case,
the studio isn’t so much selling a story as a concept: Angelina Jolie as the
icily beautiful title character. She’s quite good, but the film has other
assets, chief among them a lush fairy-tale world created by production
designers Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman (along with an army of visual effects artists).
The result is truly magical, and Maleficent
easily draws us into a marvelous make-believe environment.

The screenplay, credited to Linda Woolverton (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), is thoughtful and
intelligent, taking a page from the Wicked
playbook to explain how a peace-loving winged fairy could turn into a
hate-filled villain. Jolie is a capable actress and makes the most of the role,
bringing shading and subtlety to what could have been a one-dimensional
portrayal. Her raven sidekick from the animated feature is depicted here as a
creature named Diaval who can morph into almost anything, including a human
being; he’s nicely played by Sam Riley.

A betrayal of the heart turns Maleficent into a dark spirit.
I’d rather not give away any more of the story. Suffice it to say that she
casts a curse on the daughter of her mortal enemy, King Stefan, from the
neighboring kingdom of humans, and watches over Princess Aurora (a well-cast
Elle Fanning) as she grows into adolescence.

Just when you think the characters’ issues may be happily resolved,
along comes an action climax that seems arbitrary and unnecessary. There’s a
lot of huffing and puffing and a killing that’s new to the famous fairy tale. No
real purpose is served, and when it was over I found myself indifferent to an
experience that should have been cathartic.

Maleficent works
best when it is expressing the simplest emotions, but the film doesn’t trust
that simplicity and insists on adding spectacle to the mix. That’s a shame,
because the film has so much going for it in the dynamics of its characters and
the likability of its leading players.

I should add that while the film has been rated PG, young
children may find many scenes quite intense—I know I did. Parents should be
aware of what’s in store.

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