Review: ‘Maleficent’ has sympathy for Angelina Jolie’s not quite devil

Angelina Jolie strikes one of her silent movie poses in "Maleficent." Credit: Frank Connor
Angelina Jolie strikes one of her silent movie poses in “Maleficent.”
Credit: Frank Connor

Director: Robert Stromberg
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

The culture right now loves villains as protagonists, which is to say as flawed humans, not as one-note evil incarnate. The craze for the likes of “Breaking Bad” has wrought “Maleficent,” which retells “Sleeping Beauty” from the point of view of its horned, black-robed baddie. A motive-less, hissable monster in Disney’s 1959 film, she’s now sympathetic Angelina Jolie — plus some freaky prosthetic cheekbones — who’s rebuked and betrayed by an old flame, Stefan (Sharlto Copley). Even with the audience on her side, she decides to break bad, chucking her auburn duds for an all-black look, plus heaping a nasty curse upon Stefan’s daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning, eventually).

But Maleficent is no Walter White. Dramatically, “Maleficent” is thin stuff, and offers little of the set pieces one expects from summer movie fare. It’s a straight-up fairy tale, and yet not a fractured one, like the “Wizard of Oz” redux “Wicked.” The real fireworks happen in the character development. The anger between Maleficent and Stefan wreaks one hot mess, and no one is wholly bad or good (though some, like Fanning’s regrettably dull and underused Aurora, are wholly decent).

If anything “Maleficent” is too empathetic towards its title character. She even winds up undergoing that dreaded movie cliche where she’s a grump whose heart is melted by an annoying (or in this case overly sweet) kid. But it’s worthwhile for how it acknowledges that characters — even those tagged with having, as “The Simpsons” once put it, “the evil gene” — can shift from one extreme to the next. It makes sense for Maleficent to go from decent to evil and back again, and maybe back again again. And she’s oddly relatable: someone whose heart has been broken, acting out of instinct more than sense.

Juno Temple and two regulars of filmmaker Mike Leigh — Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville — play the nice pixies in "Maleficent." Credit: Frank Connor
Juno Temple and two regulars of filmmaker Mike Leigh — Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville — play the nice pixies in “Maleficent.”
Credit: Frank Connor

But even Stefan has a character arc. He reluctantly betrays Maleficent, then is driven absolutely mad by her revenge. Some of the nuance is simply in Copley’s committed performance. He radiates self-hatred at first, then flustered insanity. Every time we see him he’s gotten worse. (The South African Copley also reinforces the notion that the Scottish accent is the only one that’s most enjoyable when done badly. See also: Paul Schneider’s Charles Armitage Brown in “Bright Star.”)

Jolie’s performance is similarly all over the place, in a good way. She’s a full character, all too human. When she’s hurt, she’s really, believably hurt; when Stefan turns on her, she lets out a scream more powerful than any of the special effects. (It’s worth noting that technically this isn’t entirely live action; given all the CGI, it’s almost as animated as the ’59 film.) But she’s at her best when she’s sneering, glowering and strutting. It’s what she was put on earth to do. Like Eva Green, she’d have made a great silent movie actress, at her most comfortable when she’s striking poses. Get these two a retro franchise where they play dastardly villains who never speak and only pose and fire hammy glances.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


Mutant worms stay sober, even on alcohol

U.S. researchers have developed "mutant worms" that do not get drunk by alcohol, a breakthrough that could lead to new treatment for people trying to quit drinking


K-9 nose helps capture $150K in cocaine at…

A furry, four-legged security agent helped authorities stop an illegal cocaine shipment from sneaking past JFK customs.


Minnesota man asked to leave Southwest flight after…

A man and his two sons were asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight after the man sent a tweet complaining about being treated rudely by a gate agent.


Man sues hospital after surprise penis amputation

An Alabama man who went in to a hospital last month for a circumcision awoke after surgery to find his penis had been amputated, his lawyer said on Thursday.


Review: Brett Ratner's big 'Hercules' movie is small…

The latest "Hercules," starring Dwayne Johnson as the half-god beefcake of Greek myth, strips its hero and tale of most of its fantastical elements.


Scientists recreate world's smallest Monet copy

Scientists have reproduced a famous Impressionist painting using nano-printing, to create what has been described as the world's smallest work of art. Reworked at the…


Jerry Seinfeld is ambidextrous, and other Reddit AMA…

See some of the weirder highlights of Jerry Seinfeld's recent Reddit AMA.

Going Out

Grab a pedestrian and start dancing at What…

As a New Yorker, I’ve mastered the art of focusing my gaze straight ahead. Though it occasionally piques my interest, the absurdities that play out…

U.S. Soccer

Orlando City takes shot at NYCFC over Frank…

Orlando City reminded the world how big a signing Brazilian star Kaka earlier this month with a photo of Kaka mobbed by fans juxtaposed against Lampard.


Jeremy Lin says 'Linsanity' is over as he…

Jeremy Lin lit up the NBA two years ago with his play for the Knicks but he has no desire to recreate "Linsanity" in his new career with the Lakers.


2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player…

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player rankings

U.S. Soccer

NYCFC announce signing of Frank Lampard

The tease of a big signing Thursday by new MLS side NYCFC ended up being one rumored for weeks. England midfielder Frank Lampard agreed to…


Forget Wi-Fi: Li-Fi could be the future

Li-Fi technology – developed by Mexican company Sisoft – is wireless internet connectivity using specialized LED light.


Weather app Climendo might be the most accurate…

The wait for a truly accurate weather forecast could finally be over thanks to a nifty new app called Climendo.


Napkin Table puts focus off the phone and…

Michael Jan, a design student at Tunghai University in Taiwan, has invented a serviette-picnic blanket hybrid called the Napkin Table.


Essie's new Color Boutique

Essie launches high-tech kiosks at major airports and malls across the country.