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June 7, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Maleficent’ good but not magnificent

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” goes the saying.  Hollywood has historically embraced that adage, most famously with the Michael Douglas-Glenn Close thriller “Fatal Attraction.”  

But in recent years, we’ve seen a variation in that formula.  

Fairy tale stories, often highlighting a wicked witch, have been retold with the motivation for her destructive curse being revenge for unrequited love.  Sometimes the witch is still essentially heartless, as in “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”  Other times the witch’s perspective is very sympathetic, as in “Wicked” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.”  Disney Studios has followed this second pattern with “Maleficent.”

It seems highly unusual that Disney entrusted this $200 million retelling of the “Sleeping Beauty” story to a rookie director, but newcomer Robert Stromberg has a plethora of special visual effects to his credit, and he is paired with veteran screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Lion King”) and the film stars one of the industry’s most bankable female leads: Angelina Jolie.  

The story itself is well-written, with an imaginative perspective and some surprising plot developments.

But the visual effects are actually one of the film’s weak links, with garish lighting causing the fairyland venue to be fuzzy and unclear, and the set design of the fairyland is artificial and reminiscent of “The Dark Crystal.”  Still, Stromberg has paced the story well and at 97 minutes, “Maleficent” is a pleasant escape into fantasy.

The story opens with Maleficent, a winged fairy growing up idyllically in the fairyland called the Moors adjacent to a kingdom whose castle belongs in Disneyworld.  

One day, a boy from that kingdom trespasses into the Moors and is threatened with death by the magical sentries protecting its borders.  Maleficent intervenes, and she and the boy become friends, and soon Maleficent falls in love.  But the boy, in order to become King Stefan, betrays Maleficent, and she returns the favor at the christening ceremony of King Stefan’s daughter with her infamous curse of the Princess Aurora to be Sleeping Beauty.  

From there, the story intermingles confirmation with contradiction of the Sleeping Beauty legend for an enjoyable movie often in a witty, occasionally tragic, but always entertaining fashion.

Angelina Jolie (“The Tourist”) plays the statuesque Maleficent as an old softie who doesn’t want anyone to know she’s not a monster.  Elle Fanning (“Super 8”) plays Aurora with naïve curiosity; one of the screenplay’s weaknesses is that her character is not particularly well developed.  Sharlto Copley (“Elysium”) plays the power-mad Stefan, a far less appealing person than the original Disney animated character.  Brenton Thwaites (“Oculus”) is merely eye candy as handsome Prince Phillip, and Lesley Manville (“Spike Island”), Imelda Staunton (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”), and Juno Temple (“The Dark Knight Rises”) play Aurora’s three klutzy godmothers.  Sam Riley (“The Dark Valley”) has a fascinating role as Diaval, Maleficent’s companion, a wistful crow that often serves as Maleficent’s conscience.

“Maleficent” is a good but not great film.  You’ll find yourself leaving the theater thinking you liked it, but wishing for more.

3.0 Stars

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1 star — Avoid this boring mess of a movie at all costs.  Reading the dictionary is more entertaining.

2 stars — If you're in the right mood or if the subject matter appeals to you, you may like this film; or it is uneven, at times entertaining and believable and at other times sophomoric.  If you've got nothing else to do, it may be worth the price of admission (at least a matinee).

3 stars — This is a generally good movie that most people will enjoy.  If you're looking for an entertaining couple of hours, spend it here and you won't be disappointed.

4 stars — Don't miss this film!  I don't care if you have time or not, make the time, because this movie is terrific.

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