Once upon a time, there was an entertainment staple known as the character we loved to hate. Memorable villains didn’t necessarily have complicated backstories designed to arouse sympathy and present them as misunderstood — they were just really good at being really bad. That’s changed in recent years, between prequels and spinoffs and the zeitgeist in general. George Lucas was bent on trying to turn Darth Vader from evil to tragic, whether “Star Wars” fans liked it or not. “Wicked” tweaked the black-and-white (and green) conflicts of “The Wizard of Oz,” and Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” followed suit. “Wreck-It Ralph” even tossed classic videogame baddies into a support group together, poor guys.
Now comes “Maleficent,” with Angelina Jolie giving us a deeper, live-action look at Disney’s demon-horned “Sleeping Beauty” villainess. Jolie is joined in the effort by rookie director Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning production designer with a filmography that includes Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Raimi’s “Oz,” and writer Linda Woolverton, whose Disney resume includes “Alice” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
They’re collectively determined to shed some light on this wicked fairy’s dark ways, something more revealing than, Oh, she was just miffed at not getting an invite to little Princess Aurora’s christening, so she cursed the kid. They succeed for a while, but they ultimately lose their handle on delivering revisionism that fits. And while this is Jolie’s show, obviously — and she’s terrifically arch — the surprising dearth of other compelling characters doesn’t offer much distraction when things get off track.
The story opens with young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) sporting angelic wings and a thoroughly sunny disposition to go along with those horns. Her beatific fairyland existence is stirred up by Stefan, a young human trespasser who’s determined (and destined) to become king in his own land. They grow, they find romance together, they’re separated by circumstance, then reunited. Finally, Stefan (Sharlto Copley, “Elysium”), consumed by his pursuit of the throne, betrays Maleficent in a way that’s stunningly cold-hearted — one of a couple of bits of real inspiration in the movie. Almost instantly, she’s the witch we know. (And ouch, those harshly angular cheekbones — careful they don’t nick your IMAX glasses.)
Soon enough, we come to that fateful christening, and Jolie and Stromberg make it a sinister showstopper that lives up to our memory of the 1959 animated feature — by aggressively striving to outdo it. Baby Aurora is then whisked off to the woods by her three auntie fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, vaguely “Benjamin Button” creepy in their fantasy guises). But in perhaps the biggest departure from Disney’s classic — and certainly the best executed — Maleficent knows full well where Aurora is hidden. She keeps a watchful and evolving eye on the princess, from infancy to magic years (look for Jolie’s daughter Vivienne) to the cusp of sixteen (where she’s played by serviceably sprightly Elle Fanning). How deftly does Jolie play it all? Just watch her glower at a baby and say, “I hate you” — and get an intentional laugh.
The other reinvented elements pale in comparison. A couple battle sequences are sub-Tolkien stuff, although they do trot out a dragon in one of several nods to the animated version. A reworked true-love’s-kiss resolution is telegraphed. (Maybe if Disney hadn’t played with similar empowerment themes in “Frozen.”) And Copley’s crazily paranoid king is just too much. Look for his untold backstory in “Stefan,” coming someday to a theater near you.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.