Angelina Jolie looks amazing in Maleficent, the live action retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its misunderstood villain. As far as appearance goes, the role of the baddest bitch in Disney’s stable of villains is the one Jolie’s been waiting to play her whole career.
There’s always been an intimidating, otherworldly air to the actress’ beauty, and these qualities have only sharpened over the years, in parallel with Jolie attaining such a rarefied level of celebrity that she, Brad Pitt, and their six children seem to move on a separate plane from the rest of humanity. Jolie hasn’t even acted in a non-animated movie since 2010, when she starred in Salt and The Tourist, but her star hasn’t been dimmed by her recent moves toward directing Bosnian War dramas.
With bright contact lenses and makeup contouring the angles of her face into even sharper curves (her look was designed by the great Rick Baker of An American Werewolf in London), Jolie makes for a very compelling evil fairy, who’s actually just a big softie in the inside. Freed from the need to look human or do anything other than wipe the floor with less charismatic co-stars, Jolie’s able to play into serving as the supreme screen adornment she’s always been, whether zipping through the air on a bird’s wings or donning her finest black horn turban to menace a newborn princess.
The key shot in the film, which is the directorial debut of visual effects artist Robert Stromberg, is one in which a carefully lit Jolie tilts her chin up at the camera, all the better to highlight the near alien arcs of Maleficent’s cheekbones. It’s one the movie repeats several times, as is the one in which she turns her eyes to the lens in artful silhouette.
But Jolie’s a lot more impressive-looking than the rest of the film, which takes place in the kind of all-CGI wonderland that looks pretty and generic at once. It’s less psychedelic than Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, on which Stromberg also worked, but Maleficent is still possessed of the same kind of visual weightlessness. Computer-generated effects have made anything possible on screen, but they’re often used to revisit much-explored territory, and there can be a deflating sameness to the shots the film trots out in search of awe.
Maleficent’s kingdom, which is divided between the magical moors and the land of men, calls to mind Avatar more than the 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty for which it is a companion piece. And an early fight between soldiers and forest monsters in particular looks like Noah (which looks like Lords of the Rings) as if a sequence that had to have taken a lot of work by a lot of people were just some software preset — “Fantasy Battle No. 3.”
To be fair, Maleficent does play with refreshing some of the imagery of the animated Sleeping Beauty, including its anti-heroine’s green-tinged magic, the fairy trio (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville), and the dreamlike moment in which Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) finally pricks her finger on the fated spindle. And the film gives an amusing update to the kiss that wakes her from her enchanted sleep.
But the character of Maleficent doesn’t benefit in the slightest from her backstory, which makes her the victim of heartbreak at the hands of the greedy Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and has her regretting the elaborate curse she placed on the newborn Aurora as she starts playing unintentional sometimes guardian to the girl. Her growing affection for Aurora makes for an interesting resonance to Jolie’s own choices to adopt children — it’s the strength of Maleficent’s love for her surrogate daughter that powers the latter half of the story.
And while the film is a terrific platform for Jolie’s unfettered movie star wattage — she’s never looked better or more scary — the story’s all about softening a character whose appeal came from her mysterious evilness. Humanizing Maleficent just feels so much less important than enjoying her fit of spite in the original Sleeping Beauty, which featured one of the most fabulous overreactions to not being invited to a party in all of film.