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


OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…


MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.


De Blasio, Bratton defend city's efforts after Eric…

Mayor Bill de Blasio justified the city's response to the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while in police custody earlier this month.


PHOTO: New Zealand Heral uses wrong image to…

The New Zealand Herald made a terrible mistake of using the wrong image to illustrate the tragic death of Staff Sergeant Guy Boyland – a New Zealand-born Israeli soldier who…


Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."


'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.


'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."


TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.


Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.


Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”


Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.


Joe Torre: I'm in Hall of Fame because…

Joe Torre spent 18 years putting together a near Hall of Fame career as a player. But it was the 12 years he spent as…


Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.


Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…


NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.


The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.