Sometimes a piece of perfect casting goes a long way: Angelina Jolie only has to cock one mildly perturbed, ruthlessly arched eyebrow to upstage all the fairy dust swirling around her in Disney’s uneven rethink of its classic villainess. She’s a terrific vision, decked out in leather-wrapped horns that feel more comics convention than forest-dwelling evil fairy. But if you go into Maleficent expecting Jolie to be the badass of Sleeping Beauty, you’re going to get burned.
This new version is about her softer side. Here, she’s a wounded heroine who looks out for Aurora (Elle Fanning) even though she has cursed the princess to eternal sleep. Such revisions feel slightly out of place: At one point, Jolie cuts loose with an actorly scream at the loss of her wings, and it’s as if she were auditioning for a different movie.
Still, a lot of thought has gone into the gauzy feel of this universe (the film is directed, for good and ill, by Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning production designer). Twisting, thorny woods, magical sunbeams, fluffy stuff floating in the air—it’s pretty much the fantasy Ridley Scott wanted to make with his 1985 stinker, Legend. You’ll wince at the indignity of brilliant Brits like Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville reduced to playing squeaky-voiced sidekicks, and when that famous dragon from Sleeping Beauty finally does appear, it somehow has less fire than the hand-painted one from 55 years ago. But for tweenage princess obsessives, this is a perfectly acceptable next step after Frozen, with a voluptuous Lana Del Rey outro song to boot.
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