Disney movies have long featured, by way of beginning a story, an overwhelming spectacle, overawing the audience with the sweeping visual brilliance of those first 10 minutes. They have always understood that awe must act on us in our first impression of a film, and everything afterward will relax in the shadow of those moments. The opening scene of “Maleficent” follows that model exactly, but never really stops delivering. It is a visual feast, competently and sensitively written, brimming with a new kind of Disney revisionism that is as welcome as it is stimulating.
In startlingly beautiful rendering, the kingdoms of this world are laid out on the screen. The greedy hierarchical kingdom of men lies downriver from the peaceful and lovely moors of the fairies. The latter is inhabited by cuddly swamp creatures and buzzing miniature fairies, but all pale in comparison to the titular tyrant played by Angelina Jolie. In this retelling, we get to meet the evil fairy queen as a child, see her through her first heartbreak, and learn the reason she would curse the princess. The original tale is complicated in this version; hero princes turn to kings of vaunting ambition, villains grow from heroes and back into villains again. The ever-present specter of the vulnerable woman, set upon in her deathlike sleep, haunts a new side of this story. Maleficent is deepened, made sympathetic, and not at the expense of Aurora, her bright child-foil. The romance of the original story is presented, but not at the center of the tale.
Drawing inspiration from the paintings of Eyvind Earle, who so dominated the animated version made in 1959, Robert Stromberg’s treatment is breathtaking. The details of every thorn, every piece of furniture in the castle and every feather on Maleficent’s horse are sharp and tuned to impeccable clarity. The characters are styled with an unstinting eye; Jolie’s cheekbones could cut ice, but that’s only the beginning. Sam Riley as Diaval has subtly scar-like bird markings on his skin while in human form. In another subtle visual stroke, Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora is made up like the blush on an apple — charming and natural without unnecessary iteration upon youth. Less subtly but just as fastidiously done, Sharlto Copley as King Stefan is aged expertly, gracelessly, caving in on himself in a Macbeth-esque madness.
The film features dizzying battles and climaxes worthy of the price of an IMAX 3D ticket. The animators seem to have sat at home taking notes and preparing to improve upon the kind of effects audiences have come to expect since “Lord of the Rings.” True to Disney, there is no blood, but scenes of fairytale carnage are no less brutal and frightening. Forest wardens rise up terrible out of the earth, walking as giants and slithering as dragons. Diaval in crow form shifts into the best dragon in cinema this side of “Harry Potter.” There is an edge to Jolie’s performance that makes her rage and anguish utterly believable, and her vengeance into something from which the audience cannot look away. Her beauty is remarkable, but it isn’t half of why she’s perfect for this role.
The trio of fairies who cares for the princess are used to comic effect, but thankfully in small doses. Their bubble-headed exchanges wear thin, and their obvious branding and makeover in the style of the Disney Fairies franchise is so obvious it’s almost crass. They are at least unobtrusive. The aging-to-adulthood montage is as clumsy as ever, done twice with an impatient hand in this case. There are some less than perfect moments in the middle, but the beginning and ending are so strong that these flaws hardly seem memorable at all.
The moral missing from the original “Sleeping Beauty,” the complication of the hero/villain/damsel trinity, and the essence of regret and redemption are all accounted for in this film. The breaking of the curse will be a surprise to people who grew up with the original, and familiar to anyone who has seen “Frozen.”
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].