Angelina may be magnificent but unfortunately Maleficent…isn’t. A feminist (with a small f) revisionist retelling of the beloved fairy tale Sleeping Beauty from the traditional villain’s point of view that owes a debt to Angela Carter and Marina Warner, Disney’s latest live-action venture revolves around the titular Wicked Witch, transformed here into the fairy princess we first meet as a child (played first by Isobelle Molloy and as a teen by Ella Punell), hanging out in a tree, communing with the magical flora and fauna of the enchanted kingdom known as the Moors that borders the human kingdom next door.

When she meets young human orphan and thief Stefan (played by Michael Higgins as a child and Jackson Bews as a teen), it’s love at first sight, the two lonely youngsters bonding, their friendship evolving into something deeper as the years pass. But Stefan is ambitious and as war looms between the human and fairy kingdoms, he abandons Maleficent for the human world while she grows to adulthood and becomes the fairy world’s strongest protector (Angelina Jolie).

When the humans attempt to invade the Moors and are beaten back by Maleficent and her army of magical critters, on his deathbed the aging King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) promises his kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man that kills Maleficent. Stefan, now transformed into thoroughly bad egg Sharlto Copley, ventures back to the Moors, reunites with Maleficent and, in a shocking act of betrayal, cuts off her wings, presenting them to the King as proof of her death. But Maleficent survives her assault and retreats deep into the Moors, erecting an impregnable Berlin Wall of thorns around her kingdom where she broods and plots vengeance. When King Stefan fathers a daughter, Aurora, Maleficent seizes her chance, gatecrashing the Christening and cursing the child, proclaiming that before her 16th birthday she’ll prick her finger and fall into an eternal, death-like, sleep from which she can only be awoken “by true love’s kiss.”

While he spends the next 16 years preparing for his climactic showdown with the Wicked Witch, for reasons which only ever make sense in fairy tales, Stefan entrusts the infant’s care to a trio of bickering pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) who prove so ineffectual that much of Aurora’s actual parenting falls to the ever watchful, unseen Maleficent who, despite herself, grows fond of the child she calls “Beastie.” But as Aurora blossoms into Elle Fanning, she has a fateful date with a cursed spinning wheel…

Scripted by Linda Woolverton (who also wrote Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King for Disney) Maleficent is rather more successful plot-wise than Disney’s other recent live-action revisionist dabblings (the tedious Alice In Wonderland and practically unwatchable Oz The Great And Powerful) and it looks great, debut director and veteran visual effects artist Robert Stromberg building a fantasy world that echoes that of Disney’s classic animations, peppering it with plenty of vertigo-inducing flying scenes and a blood-and-thunder battle that allows Jolie to swoop around like a winged Joan Of Arc, though worryingly the film does feel at times like a $180million dollar TV movie, the score too saccharinely Disney-esque, the pace rushed, the scenes not involving special effects a little pedestrian and bland. There are far too many cutesy bog-troll critters playfully slinging mud around for more liking and I could have done without the now ubiquitous tree people (indistinguishable from Lord Of The Rings’ Ents or Noah’s Watchers) incongruously riding into battle on wild boars! Why are trees riding pigs anyway?

Unfortunately, Stromberg’s inexperience as a director shows dramatically in the uneven performances, Sharlto Copley continuing his aural assault on the English language by mangling another comedy accent, this time Scottish, his villain sounding more like Russ Abbot’s C.U. Jimmy than the Macbeth all that tortured brooding in dark throne rooms would suggest and he’s simply not charismatic enough to convince as someone capable of turning Jolie’s head and betraying her while the luminous Elle Fanning (normally the best thing in whatever she’s in) is so bland and colourless it’s almost a relief when she enters her enchanted coma. As the pixies, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple (who was born to play a pixie) are annoying and amusing in equal measure but will no doubt be loved by younger audience members and, despite being saddled with a woeful Oirish accent to rival Sean Connery’s in Darby O’Gill, Sam Riley (who might have made a far more effective Stefan than Copley) is solid as Maleficent’s spy, confidant, personal Jiminy Cricket and right-hand man/crow, the chemistry between them palpable.

The film’s major saving grace unsurprisingly is Jolie. She’s wonderful, her Maleficent a supremely delicious purring mix of Joan Collins, Ava Gardner and Cruella Di Vil. Strong, sexy and sarcastic she strides and glides through the film, nabbing all the best lines and all the best action, creating a complex heroine every little girl should emulate. A cartoon villainess, evil for evil’s sake, in Sleeping Beauty, here Maleficent is the ultimate wronged woman; her love spurned in favour of callow ambition, her violent betrayal a dark metaphorical rape that cries out for justice and vengeance, highlighting and standing in opposition to the unpleasant, misogynistic morality that runs through most traditional fairytales, casting her as the ultimate femme fatale striking back against the power of the patriarchy. She’s a modern-day Disney princess, one who learns the hard way that love hurts and that her sense of self doesn’t lie in a man’s validation, her growing love for the child she damns, far from softening her, serves to empower her, allowing Jolie to be both hero and villain of the piece.

While it never quite manages to be as satisfying as 2012’s Snow White And The Huntsman, Maleficent is thankfully no Mirror, Mirror and whatever its flaws, its greatest validation lies in the excited reactions of the teenage girls who were sat behind me cheering as Maleficent and Aurora save each other and vanquish the evil Stefan. Angela Carter would be grudgingly proud.

 

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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