“Maleficent” takes part in a fine literary tradition: that of telling a well-known tale from the point of view of the tale’s villain.
For instance, John Gardner took the ancient epic poem Beowolf and reworked it from the point of view of the monster in his novel, “Grendel.”
A prize-winning children’s book called “The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs” purports to give the Big Bad Wolf’s exculpatory version of the classic fable. And perhaps most successfully, at least in a commercial sense, the book and musical “Wicked” rewrites the Wizard of Oz story from the point of view of the wicked witches.
While “Maleficent” lacks the cleverness and complexity of “Wicked,” it still offers some of the same topsy-turvy charms. Call it “Wicked-Lite.”
The better acquainted you are with the 1959 animated Disney movie ‘Sleeping Beauty,” the greater the chance you’ll appreciate this updated live-action version, since it recreates its visual style to a tee. (No surprise that its director is an Oscar-winning production designer, Robert Stromberg.)
For those unfamiliar with the animated “Sleeping Beauty,” Maleficent is an evil fairy that curses the King’s newborn baby girl, Aurora. On her 16th birthday, Aurora is fated to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an eternal sleep. The only thing that can save her is a true love’s kiss.
Maleficent is one of the all-time great villainesses in the Disney canon, with her high-necked black cape, twisty black horns, and the ever-present staff and black crow. It’s the very picture of elegant evil.
In this live-action version, Angelina Jolie is the perfect human embodiment of the cartoon Maleficent. With cheekbones that could cut stone and a glare that could stop anyone in their tracks, Jolie knows how to strike a pose.
Her mystical spells and laser-like focus make Jolie’s Maleficent a powerful force of nature and a warrior woman not to be taken lightly. Unlike the animated version, in which her battles with King Stefan and Princess Aurora are inexplicable manifestations of pure evil, this new Maleficent has her reasons. She’s a wronged woman with some justifiable rage.
But to its credit, rather than becoming just a story of revenge, the movie also provides room for Maleficent to grow, psychologically. As the story develops, the plot twists deepen her character in surprising and satisfying ways.
The only other character to get any real screen time is Elle Fanning’s Aurora, and although she basically plays the wide-eyed innocent, the ingenue, she provides a nice contrast to the wise but jaded Maleficent.
“Maleficent” creates an elaborate fairy woodland setting for much of the action and throws in a couple of wartime battles too, but to be honest, they seem little more than excuses to show off some 3-D CGI effects.
“Maleficent” is really all about and only about Maleficent. And that’s just enough.