The formula works. It worked with "Wicked" on stage and it worked with "Frozen" on film — tilting the storytelling prism so that a new angle on a well-known fairy tale appears in the light. The strategy depends on humanizing characters formerly known as evil, so that another tale of conflicted impulses emerges from the story we know, driven by female antagonist/protagonist hybrids who aren't bad, just misunderstood.
So it goes with "Maleficent," the Disney corporation's bombastic, moderately entertaining explanation of why the "queen of all evil" from its 1959 animated "Sleeping Beauty" got that way, and why she wasn't, really.
This is almost entirely Angelina Jolie's show. "Maleficent" is her first picture in four years, and from the tip of her character's prosthetic cheekbones to the needle-sharp tippy-top of one of the massive horns (like party favors that got out of control) approximately 14 inches north of her skull, truly this is a performance that goes from point A to point B without seeming rote, or ho-hum.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton sets up a dueling-kingdoms narrative, humans uneasily located adjacent to the land of sprites, fairies, wicker men and a color palette bright enough to make you urp. As a young girl, Maleficent has wonderful wings and an exuberant spirit. One day in the forest she meets an interloper, Stefan, shy and charming.
Years later, now a career-minded young adult, Stefan (played by the perpetually strenuous Sharlto Copley of "District 9") is required to kill Maleficent to prove himself worthy of running the kingdom. He can't go through with the deed, but he drugs his ex-sometime-girlfriend and robs her of her most conspicuous adornments. What else can Maleficent do at this point? She lets it go — can't hold it back any more — and exacts revenge on her one-time squeeze by casting a spell on his newborn daughter, the princess Aurora. Much of the action and some of the dialogue overlaps and intersects with the '59 animated film, itself drawn from the Perrault and Grimm versions of "Sleeping Beauty."
"Maleficent" is all about second thoughts. Our anti-heroine, who dominates the proceedings like a drag act looking for her spotlight, spends much of the film as Aurora's conflicted fairy godmother, her heart warming, reluctantly, to the girl under the spell. (Maleficent's child-care trio is played by motion-capture versions of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple; Sam Riley is her shape-shifting sidekick.) There are elaborate battle sequences with Maleficent wiping out hordes of human soldiers that recall the dark-toned, blood-free slaughter of another recent fairy tale do-over, "Snow White and the Huntsman" (which I liked, actually).
Elle Fanning plays the older Aurora, and while she and Jolie are required to stay within the boundaries of a specific type of green-screen acting, they're awfully good at it; their work is vivid and emotionally potent, even when the first-time feature director Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning art director, doesn't bring much in terms of fluid camerawork to the party. As Maleficent herself thaws into pretty-niceness, Jolie keeps a tight rein on the transformation and on the film as a whole. There are moments when you wish the spell-caster would banish James Newton Howard's sloshy, pushy musical score to the neighboring kingdom of Generica. On the other hand, makeup wizard Rick Baker deserves plaudits (or kudos, whichever is ranked higher) for the title character's angular, serrated look.
And now Disney can move on to developing the untold story of Cruella de Vil and how she was wronged by a caddish London playboy with an affection for dogs.
"Maleficent" - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images)
Running time: 1:37