In days of old two kingdoms live side by side: the land of men full envy and mistrust stirred by a war-mongering king and the fairy realm whose enchanted inhabitants care for each other and have no need of kings. Their chief protector is young Maleficent (Ella Purnell), a joyful, horned, flying fairy girl who safeguards the forest with her awesome magical powers. One day Maleficent spares the life of Stefan (Jackson Bews), a young human thief who in time steals her heart. Yet years later, when the now grownup Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) foils an attempted invasion led by King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) she ends up losing her wings, cruelly betrayed by her beloved Stefan (Sharlto Copley) so he can inherit the throne. As time passes the birth of King Stefan's baby daughter draws three fairies Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) intent on forging peace through bestowing magical gifts. But Maleficent gatecrashes the party and casts a spell ensuring that on her sixteenth birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into an eternal sleep. Her only chance to awake: true love's first kiss, something Maleficent does not believe exists. On Stefan's orders the three fairies spirit the child to safety in a country cottage far away but as beautiful Aurora (Elle Fanning) comes of age, Maleficent influences her life in a quite unexpected way.
Back when fairytale spoofs were all the rage Disney proved it was possible to make one with heart with the beguiling high-concept romantic comedy Enchanted (2007). Now the studio have done it again with their contribution to the new cycle of revisionist live action fairytales. Hitherto the trend yielded watchable yet underwhelming films like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Red Riding Hood (2012) and Jack the Giant Slayer (2013). Bolstered by the star-power of Angelina Jolie, Disney landed the biggest hit of the bunch hot on the heels of their more subtly revisionist animated offering, Frozen (2013). Maleficent sees the studio revisit the story of Sleeping Beauty (1959). The original animated film was a costly failure in its day but over time gained fans as a flawed but charming cartoon with memorable moments. Notably Disney's first fully rounded and likeable hero but also the iconic witch Maleficent.
Here Angelina Jolie, in makeup inspired by the classic character design by Disney animator Marc Davis, re-imagines the role in a showstopping manner that would do Joan Crawford proud. Traditional fairytales often adhere to a conservative viewpoint leaving little room for moral ambiguity. Scripted by Linda Woolverton, unsung heroine of many a modern Disney gem from Beauty and the Beast (1991) to Tim Burton's unjustly underrated Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent gives the familiar fairytale feisty feminist makeover, recasting Maleficent as a conflicted anti-heroine. At times the film is closer in tone to classic Hong Kong ghost stories like The Bride with White Hair (1993) or Painted Skin (1992) with the protagonist a wounded woman avenging herself against an unjust world, yet in danger of losing sight of what she is fighting for until redeemed by an innocent. A radiant, well cast Elle Fanning plays wholesome sweetness to the hilt. She holds her own against Jolie even though her more traditional heroine pales besides the more complex Maleficent. At least she gets to prove her mettle towards the climax.
Woolverton radically re-imagines this as a story about a daughter and her surrogate mother, tweaking the plot so Maleficent continually spies on and occasionally aids young Aurora from afar against her better nature. As Maleficent struggles to shield herself from the little princess' wholeheartedly loving nature, she proves a better parent than her increasingly embittered father. An unfortunate side-effect is that the role of men in this story is severely weakened with only a cruel king, a tepid prince (Brenton Thwaites) and not much for Sam Riley to do as Maleficent's wisecracking, shape-shifting crow sidekick. Women perform all the heroism in this particular take on the story, which when you think about it is fair enough given how often men monopolize the screen. As a narrative it is langorous, even awkward in spots lifting chunks of dialogue from the 1959 original that sit uneasily with the revisionist agenda. Yet with Jolie's beguiling, empathetic performance to the fore Maleficent, both film and character, proves often genuinely moving as it ingeniously re-imagines the age-old fairytale concept of true love. It is also laden with magical moments celebrated production designer turned first-time director Robert Stromberg, of Avatar (2009) fame, clearly relishes conjuring to life. The film looks magnificent with sumptuous scenery awash with intricate fairy creatures evoking the illustrations of Brian Froud, Mabel Atwell and Cicely Mary Barker and heady, exhilarating set-pieces in eye-popping colours. Lana Del Ray performs a suitably sardonic cover of "Once Upon a Dream" that neatly encapsulates the film's themes.