Maleficent opens with a joyous aerial tracking shot which swoops across the kingdom of men before waltzing us into a more magical realm. The humans, we learn, are subject to the rule of a monarch, while the fairies and their kind are presided over by no one. Living simple, selfless, lives they have been self governed since the dawn of time. Young Maleficent understands the necessity of a divide between the two lands yet casts her mistrust aside when a human boy sneaks onto fairy territory, takes her hand and steals her heart.
In the intervening years, contact between the juvenile loves falters then halts. As the pluckiest of the fairies Maleficent is made protector of the moors. But her heart still beats for her childhood love and her imagination writes happy endings for the couple in the stars, even as he abandons all memory of her for worldlier temptations. When the greedy human king invades her beloved moors his avarice and ignorance change the fate of both, irrevocably. Maleficent swiftly matures from girl, to woman, to warrior. And the young thief steals something he can never return.
Inspired by the question marks scattered throughout its own source material, Disney’s new incarnation of the Sleeping Beauty story cleverly subverts the traditional view of events : how did three ditzy fairies fare as guardians to a princess? What provoked Maleficent’s volcanic rage towards the crown and whose love for Aurora was proven fairy tale true? In a role seemingly tailor-made for her otherworldly looks and notorious enchantment with the dark side, Angelina Jolie quite simply dazzles. Her Maleficent is magnificent. A brief onscreen moment with her real daughter (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, as the younger Aurora) and later crippling grief for the loss of the child she damned are quite overwhelmingly moving while leaps into bleak comedy are nimbly achieved.
As the technicoloured kingdom of the fairies is infused with shades of grey – its panorama marinated in Maleficent’s rage and despair – Maleficent the film becomes something truly special. The imperious, horned figure stalking into Aurora’s christening celebration to chasten the cowering king trails our own empathy and impotent fury in her wake. James Newton Howard’s stirring score still trumpets the remembered pomp and circumstance but it shimmers with hints of disharmony as the tidy tapestry unravels. Baby Aurora is cursed and hastened away, just as we recollect, yet nothing unfolds as it ought to. This is Aurora in Wonderland with all the characters downside up and no one behaving as they ought to at all.
It would be disingenuous to say that anyone is Angelina Jolie’s equal here – Maleficent is so undeniably her picture – however she is given valiant support by her co-stars. Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan is genuinely grotesque in his villainous transformation and Elle Fanning brings a mischievous spirit and charm to Aurora which recalls Ever After’s splendid Danielle (Drew Barrymore). Maleficent’s animal familiar Diaval (Sam Riley) offers a nice wry counterpoint to some of her more pantomime moments, and effectively bridges a pair of ponderous leaps between whimsy and melodrama.
Unexpectedly the weakest link here is the aesthetic, which stumbles between breathtaking gothic beauty and Tinker Bell outtake twee. The light relief that fairy childminders Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) delivered is stunted by their distracting CG bodies, while the disjointed 3D effects are largely surplus to requirements. This is a film which succeeds in spite of its special effects not thanks to them, though character make-up and wardrobe are uniformly excellent throughout. Perhaps Robert Stromberg contracted a little too much Burton magic in their time together.
Although Maleficent’s horrific betrayal is suggested rather than shown, it strikes an effective and brutal note of discord through the equilibrium of her land which reverberates until the final twist of the tale. With the line separating good guys from bad so cleverly blurred – and without the distancing quality of animation – the ultra violence of King Stefan’s pursuit and Maleficent’s retaliation rampage across screen. This bold approach commands rapt attention and allows an older audience deeper investment in the fantastical story, but very young viewers will need a bigger hand to hold.