There are two sides to every story, and there can be countless versions of the same tale. Maleficent, the enchanting live-action reworking of the 1959 animated Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, has all the touchstones you remember: The spinning wheel, the poisoned needle, the three fairy godmothers, the charming prince and a fearsome dragon that can stand alongside Peter Jackson’s Smaug without shame.
The main difference this time is that the fable is told from the point of the view of the eponymous villain (Angelina Jolie), an evil fairy who curses the infant daughter of the king (Sharlto Copley), condemning her to die on her 16th birthday. Sporting giant wings, black horns on her head and eyes that constantly change color and sparkle with malice, Jolie resists the natural temptation to push the character into camp. Instead, she plays the role straight-up, with subtlety and feeling, wielding her natural beauty as a weapon. Even the augmented cheekbones that are part of her makeup can’t mar her looks, and first-time director Robert Stromberg, who won two Oscars for art direction (Avatar and Alice in Wonderland), goes in for close-ups of his star as often as he can. In a movie crammed with special effects — wait until you see the giant tree monsters — Jolie is the most startling and wondrous of all.
Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton resist the temptation to darken the source material, first written by France’s Charles Perrault in 1697 and mutated into various incarnations over the centuries. Unlike Snow White and the Huntsman or Red Riding Hood, which upped the violence and danger in order to secure a PG-13 rating and lure older teenagers, Maleficent is unabashedly aimed at kids. Aside from some cartoonish, overly cutesy forest creatures, the movie looks fantastic, shot in an inviting, striking palette by cinematographer Dean Semler (Apocalypto). Instead of falling into the CGI-overload trap that snared Sam Raimi in Oz the Great and Powerful or overloading the movie with superfluous subplots like Tim Burton did with Alice in Wonderland, Stromberg keeps the movie moving at a brisk pace (97 minutes), with no needless musical numbers or unnecessary characters.
The result is a rare live-action Disney movie that merits comparison to its beloved feature-length cartoons. Maleficent doles out some surprises in its second half, becoming its own film while still being worthy of the title Sleeping Beauty. For fun, try showing your children the original cartoon before taking them to see this new and inventive retelling and watch their young minds reel (for maximum effect, spring for the IMAX 3D version, which looks stunning). Maleficent is the summer’s first real surprise — a project that looked like a cash grab built on a well-known brand name, as well as a vanity project for Jolie. But the movie turns out to be sweet and funny and exciting and touching. It also makes a convincing argument that sometimes, being bad feels pretty good.
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Brandon Thwaites.
Director: Robert Stromberg.
Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 97 minutes. Mild fantasy violence. Opens Friday May 30 at area theaters.