The formula worked with "Wicked," and it worked with "Frozen" — tilting the storytelling prism so that a new angle on a well-known fairy tale appears. The strategy depends on humanizing characters formerly known as evil, so that another tale of conflicted impulses emerges from the story we know, driven by female antagonist-protagonist hybrids who aren't bad, just misunderstood.
So it goes with "Maleficent," the Disney corporation's bombastic, moderately entertaining explanation of why the "queen of all evil" from its 1959 animated "Sleeping Beauty" got that way, and why she wasn't, really.
This is almost entirely Angelina Jolie's show. "Maleficent" is her first picture in four years, and from the tip of her character's prosthetic cheekbones to the needle-sharp tippy-top of the massive horns approximately 14 inches north of her skull, this is a performance that goes from point A to point B without seeming rote.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton sets up a dueling-kingdoms narrative, with humans uneasily located adjacent to the land of sprites, fairies and wicker men. As a girl, Maleficent has wonderful wings and an exuberant spirit. One day in the forest, she meets Stefan, a shy and charming interloper.
Years later, now a career-minded young adult, Stefan (played by the perpetually strenuous Sharlto Copley) is required to kill Maleficent to prove himself worthy of running the kingdom. He can't go through with the deed, but he drugs his ex-girlfriend and robs her of her most conspicuous adornments. What else can Maleficent do at this point? She exacts revenge on her one-time squeeze by casting a spell on his newborn daughter, the princess Aurora.
Elle Fanning plays the older Aurora, and while she and Jolie are required to stay within the boundaries of a specific type of green-screen acting, they're awfully good at it. Their work is emotionally potent, even when the first-time feature director Robert Stromberg doesn't bring much in terms of fluid camerawork to the party. As Maleficent thaws into niceness, Jolie keeps a tight rein on the transformation and on the film as a whole.
And now, Disney can move on to developing the untold story of Cruella de Vil and how she was wronged by a caddish London playboy with an affection for dogs.
MPAA rating: PG (for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images)
Running time: 1:37