Maleficent: Starring Angelina Jolie

Promising a revisionist take on the 1959 “Sleeping Beauty,” one of Disney’s most beloved fairy tales, “Maleficent” is far stronger in the visual aspects of its lavish production than in its narrative and tonal elements.

Above all, “Maleficent” functions as a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who commands the screen with an astounding performance, greatly assisted by richly designed costumes and heavy make-up.  Jolie’s physical appearance and some of the set-pieces are so striking (if not always beautiful) that they manage to conceal, at least for a while, the film’s other problems.

Touted as this summer’s only blockbuster to feature a female heroine, “Maleficent” cost around $150 million (inlcuding reshoots), which may explain why star Jolie (also credited as one of many producers) has done such extensive promotion of her new picture.  Moreover, since Jolie’s last two movies, “The Tourist” and “Salt,” were commercially underwhelming, the box-office pressures on her are all the more significant.

The villainess of “Sleeping Beauty” gets to be the heroine in this “Wicked”-like story, which touches on the theme of female empowerment.  The premise of turning the memorably wicked witch into a protagonist is more than a gimmick or trick.

In several ways, “Maleficent” suffers from the same issues that had marked producer Joe Roth’s other big-screen adaptations of fairy tales: “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

Directed by first-time helmer Robert Stromberg from a script credited to “Beauty and the Beast” scribe Linda Woolverton, the film benefits from a smart spin and seductive premise, but the narrative is incoherent.  And though the film is short (only 97 minutes), it’s long enough to make the tale’s emotional void and uncertainty of tone, quite noticeable.

Opening with storybook-themed voiceover narration, “Maleficent” describes two rival kingdoms: the world of humans and the world of fairies and trolls. Darting around the moors is the winged young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), who strikes up unlikely friendship, and later romance, with the human farmhand, Stefan (Michael Higgins).

We observe the life of Maleficent as a young girl (Molloy) and then as a teenager (Ella Purnell), narrated by Janet McTeer with voice-overs that link the episodes.  These early chapters are crucial in establishing the circumstances under which Maleficent became the woman that she is.

Later on, when a war breaks out between the two kingdoms, the adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) betrays Maleficent (Jolie) by drugging her and cutting off her wings. Scorned and shorn, Maleficent then fashions a magical staff from a twig, dons a black helmet, and takes cruel revenge on Stefan’s infant daughter, Aurora.

Hiding in the woods outside Aurora’s cabin, Maleficent becomes sort of a “fairy godmother,” while Aurora’s guardians, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistletwit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville), Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple) behave like bumbling fools and turn out to be incompetent in their jobs.

Hailing from production design, director Stromberg reveals severe weaknesses in handling plot development, and quite disappointingky, he lacks the necessary skills to stage imaginative battle scenes; the action set pieces here are too generic and impersonal.

Perfectly cast in the lead, Jolie gives a commanding star performance, despite the physical constraints and overwrought special effects.  Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker has done a marvelous job in giving the star a prosthetic nose, cheeks, teeth and ears, contact lenses and two horns atop her head.

Jolie deserves credit for turning what was a simple, single-minded villain in the 1959 fable into a fully-realized character, with specific background, motivation and identity.  Though delivering mostly one-liners and interacting with objects and artifice, Jolie plays Maleficent as a femme who has experienced pain and anger, but is also capable of love and compassion.

Jolie is one of the few (maybe the only one) stars in the industry right now who embodies effortlessly old-Hollywood glamor, and the physicality of her performance is so overwhelming (helped as it it by fetishwear) that her sheer presence, while pleasurable to the eyes underlines the gap between spectacle and narrative.

I will not be surprised if we will see this Halloween many girls (and perhaps some gay boys) dressed as Maleficent.