Maleficent is set in two kingdoms — the Moors, a glittering land filled with fairies and pixies and gnomes and various magical creatures, and an ordinary kingdom of men. The two countries do not get along, but young Maleficent meets and befriends a poor but ambitious boy named Stefan. They meet frequently on the border of their two kingdoms, and their friendship blossoms into love. They grow up, Maleficent becomes the most powerful fairy in the land and the defender of the Moors, and Stefan becomes cravenly opportunistic. He betrays her to gain status, and she becomes everything she ever hated. But the story doesn’t end there. That’s just the setup.
If you were expecting a Wuthering Heights style long form view of a villain’s revenge, you’re going to have to keep looking. This is a really lovely, heartwarming story that takes a few dark paths to get there. I enjoyed the movie, and I was moved by it, but it wasn’t what I thought it would be. Over the last week I have tried to imagine what the film I had wanted would look like, and I have only the vaguest ideas. But I do know that I wish the movie hadn’t made Maleficent just a woman scorned. Stefan’s betrayal was beyond the pale, but turning the gloriously rage-filled fairy into a woman seeking vengeance against her old lover felt a tiny bit like an abasement.
There is an unrepentant villain in the movie, but that role goes to Sharlto Copley as the ambitious, deceitful, and, eventually, crazy Stefan. His decline from a bright, kind boy to an obsessive, hateful man is tragic. He achieves everything he ever dreamed of and never enjoys any of it. He would say that Maleficent robbed him of that chance, but he made his own terrible choices along the way. Copley plays crazy pretty well, and his retreat into obsessive anger and fear is outlandish but believable.
Sam Riley is a necessary grounding presence as Diaval, the only character with a consistent moral code. Originally a crow, Maleficent saves him from certain death by turning him into a man. For that, he is extremely loyal to her without ever approving of her villainy. He is also saddled with all of the expository dialogue, constantly explaining what we’ve just seen, but Riley manages to wrap it all up into a coherent and even charming performance, which is no mean feat. He is also the first character to really love the young Aurora, although certainly not the last. The pixies gave Aurora the gift of grace and beauty and promised that she would be loved by all who knew her. Elle Fanning seems genetically engineered for the role. With her open face, wide eyes, and infectious smile, Fanning’s Aurora wins the love of everyone around her by loving them first. She is guileless and trusting and seemingly overjoyed by everything, without coming off as stupid. The only characters who seem immune to her charms are the pixies, who are tasked with hiding out and caring for her until after her 16th birthday. The pixies are the film’s comic relief, but as played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, they are also one of the film’s darkest elements. Unlike the warm and loving fairies of the cartoon, these fairies are stupid and petty and loveless and dangerously incompetent.
And then, of course, there is Angelina Jolie. First, her costuming and makeup are flawless. Rick Baker gave her maybe the best red lip in cinematic history, and those cheekbones never cease to be terrifying. Her iconic high collar is rendered here in feathers, and it is amazing. Although, by the end of the movie she is wearing a leather catsuit, which was a little odd, but I decided to just go with it. I mean, why not put Jolie in a leather catsuit if you get the chance? But beyond her look, Jolie plays the part perfectly. Her character is in constant flux, first strong but innocent, then hurt and angry, then evil and unfeeling, then softening, and she hits all her notes. Maleficent is really just a showcase for her, and she puts on quite a show.
First time director Robert Stromberg delivers a visual feast for moviegoers. His background is in matte painting, VFX, and production design, so he is proved more than capable of bringing the film's fantastic elements to life. The glittering fairy land and the idyllic cottage in the woods where Aurora grows up are the places every little girl dreams of living. There is a battle scene near the beginning that features some of the most original creature designs I've ever seen, and the final fight in the castle, employing the anti-Maleficent artillery that Stefan has been building for years, is something to see. He is slightly less adept at managing the tone of the film — Stefan generally seems to be in a different movie — but even those flaws weren't jarring.
In the end, Maleficent is a bit of a retcon, explaining how she wasn't a villain, not really, and if she was, it all worked out for everyone in the end, so we really shouldn't be too mad at her. It is lovely and warm and you will likely leave the theater feeling great, but part of me hopes that in ten years they reboot it and give us the dark, unapologetic, Maleficent-as-Heathcliff drama that is out there somewhere.