Welcome to the post-Frozen Disney. After sending all manner of questionable, unrealistic messages about "true love" for so long, the House of Mouse is working overtime to make amends. Maleficent, a radical retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the villainous fairy herself, was clearly put into production long before Frozen became the monster hit that it was, but it still bears many of the same marks in terms of its story and message, with "true love" reinterpreted in the guise of family bonds rather than romance at first sight. While it doesn't match the heights of that animated musical, it still soars reasonably high thanks to an amazing, dedicated performance from Angelina Jolie.
I cannot stress this enough: Angelina Jolie is 95% of what makes this film work. No actress in Hollywood does strong, independent, badass women better than Jolie does, which is why no other actress could have made Maleficent this compelling. If it were anyone else playing Maleficent, this movie would've fallen apart. Jolie was absolutely perfectly cast, having tons of fun hamming it up as a classic Disney "bad girl", coming close to the line of being campy but never crossing it and making it impossible to take her character seriously. Not only is she convincingly scary when it comes time to threaten the asshole king and his soldiers, but she's also a joker, gleefully trolling Princess Aurora's three pixie protectors and regularly snarking and quipping at her foes. Most importantly, however, she sells the growing bond between Maleficent and Aurora, going from scorning her as the king's daughter to slowly warming up to her and coming to regard her as her own daughter, to the point where she longs for a way to undo the curse that she had placed upon her. You'll see the twist coming from a mile away (especially if you've seen Frozen), but Jolie's performance is so spectacular that it's still moving anyway. At the very least, I'm predicting mountains of fanfiction and fan art generated by her take on the character. First-time feature film director Robert Stromberg wisely kept the focus on Jolie's Maleficent throughout the film, avoiding the same problem that ultimately ruined Snow White and the Huntsman (i.e. having a great villainess but not much else to back it up). By making Maleficent's arc the core of the film, the underdeveloped side characters were a lot easier to swallow.
Stromberg also shot this movie beautifully. Unlike many "dark" retellings of fairy tales and old Disney classics, this film fully embraces the magical side of the source material, with most of the film taking place in lush forests and farms or in dark nightmare woods that all look ripped straight from the cels of Disney's '50s animators. It doesn't go overboard with the fantasy, choosing to ground it all in a recognizably "real" medieval world, but when the choice was between gritty realism and stylized imagery, they went with style almost every time. The moors that Maleficent calls home look like a neon acid trip with all the magical creatures running and flying around, while the look of Maleficent herself is taken straight from the original film with little in the way of toning it down. In fact, in the opening she even has giant black wings that she didn't have in Sleeping Beauty, with her losing those wings being the origin of her beef with King Henry and his successor Stefan. The action scenes sometimes fall into the trap of quick cuts and shaky-cam, but make up for it with a number of key moments that are truly a sight to behold, with epic battles packing a punch (the dragon!) and Jolie getting many opportunities to shine and show off her kick-ass attitude.
Alas, this is not a perfect film, especially where its supporting cast is concerned. Maleficent rests quite a bit on viewers knowing the story of Sleeping Beauty to fill in the details for most of the characters, with the character development it does provide being hardly enough to make up for it for those who haven't seen the film since they were little. The actors are, by and large, pretty good, including Elle Fanning as Aurora, Sharlto Copley as King Stefan, Sam Riley as Maleficent's faithful shape-shifting servant Diaval, and Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Leslie Manville as the pixies providing some delightful comic relief throughout the film. The problem is that, for the most part, they're fairly one-note characters who get little development outside their connection to Maleficent and Aurora. We get some scenes here and there, like when Stefan forces the iron workers to work through the night, but they're not enough to really give much texture to them. As a result, whenever Maleficent wasn't on screen, I was spending most of my time waiting for her to come back, which fortunately was never very long. Again, wise move giving pretty much the entire movie over to Jolie for her to make into her show instead of lingering too long on everyone else. Another wise move: treating Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) almost as an afterthought. Given this movie's Frozen-esque message, he shouldn't have been a very important character, and sure enough, the guy who isn't Aurora's true love isn't strung out as being such for half the movie. It only further telegraphs what's going to happen, but it doesn't waste too much time.
Score: 4 out of 5
This movie promises 97 minutes of Angelina Jolie being a very naughty girl (well, as naughty as she can get with a PG rating), and sure enough, it delivers precisely that, with the title character making up for the rest of the film's shortcomings. It's a fun, if predictable, modern fairy tale that hits most of the right buttons while marking a definite transition on the part of Disney.