You only think you know the story (but this one – in many ways – is so much better).
Once upon a time, a fairy girl and a human boy dared to breach the boundary separating their two worlds and became very close. As the human boy became a man, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) grew ambitious and took to the service of his king; as the fairy girl became a woman, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) 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 at the command of Maleficent; when the dying king offers his throne in exchange for revenge, Stephan 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 love might undo. In the years waiting for the curse to be effected, Maleficent begins to question her revenge 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 main character to supporting cast neither undermines her nor renders her irrelevant, re-purposing her through Elle Fanning’s portrayal as the instrument that unblackens a heavy heart. While it seems trivial considering how little screen time he really gets, Sharlto Copley plays the mad king well, a man obsessed with keeping his power received through betrayal. While the cast alone put the film on the right track, it was a combination of all the elements that brought everything into perfect focus.
The production design fills 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, and all manner of creatures to populate a magical world. It’s mostly computer-generated, of course, playing to the fantasy and fears of the characters involved in the story as a character itself; this is the same kind of work that made both Oz the Great and Powerful and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland come alive in ways it would be very expensive to with a mere static set. Sam Riley adds a wonderfully additional foil to Maleficent’s darker moods as Diaval, a rescued raven she can command turned to a man (or anything else she might find readily useful).
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 revelation, Angelina Jolie stammers a spot-on response without sacrificing a hint of her intensity, a wonderful character reveal that she can still be surprised. With very 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.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)