Disney’s empowerment of female protagonists, which snowballed in the delightful Frozen, continues apace in Robert Stromberg’s fantastical live-action fairytale.
Inspired by the studio’s 1959 animation Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a visually stunning fantasy, which re-imagines the Brothers Grimm through the mascara-ed eyes of the eponymous villainess, who curses a fair princess to 100 years of slumber.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton casts a heady spell by embellishing the familiar yarn with neat flourishes.
“Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it...” teasingly purrs the narrator in the film’s opening frames.
Lines between good and evil become blurred in Angelina Jolie’s delicious portrayal of the vengeful fairy queen, whose belief in the power of “true love’s kiss” is corrupted by the betrayal of the man she loves. Sporting a hefty pair of horns, Jolie slinks through every frame, rolling menacing lines of dialogue around her mouth like candy and accentuating thinly veiled threats with an arched eyebrow.
Her nemesis is King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), a greedy monarch, who yearns to expand his kingdom by conquering the forest realm where Maleficent holds sway.
In the battle, the king is badly wounded and pledges his crown to any man who can defeat the “winged elf”.
Lowly underling Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who befriended Maleficent in childhood, tricks the fairy and steals her wings, thereby securing the throne. Following his coronation, King Stefan is poisoned by power and greed.
Maleficent bides her time with her shape-shifter henchman Diaval (Sam Riley).
When the queen gives birth to a daughter, Maleficent journeys to the castle to curse the infant Aurora: on her 16th birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into eternal slumber. Only true love’s kiss can break the enchantment.
King Stefan entrusts the babe to bickering fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), who raise Aurora in a woodland cottage.
The princess blossoms into a caring young woman (now played by Elle Fanning) and Maleficent wonders if this innocent could unite the feuding kingdoms and earn her happy ever after in the arms of dashing prince Phillip.
Maleficent is anchored by Jolie’s tour-de-force theatrics. She casts a stylish shadow over every frame and her twisted maternal bond with infant Aurora mellows into something genuinely moving.
Fanning is sweetness and youthful exuberance personified while Staunton, Manville and Temple provide the broad comic relief.
Digital effects are impressively harnessed by director Stromberg to realise the forest and its magical denizens and allow the title character to take flight over her domain.
Like the film, she soars.
7.5 out of 10
By Damon Smith