- - Thursday, May 29, 2014

How do wicked witches get that way? In the age of the fairy tale, this was not a particularly relevant question.

The vain stepmother in “Snow White” doesn’t need a back story. The old crone with the candy house in “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t impelled to cook and eat children by inner demons.

Still, maybe they had their reasons. The innocent fairy turned vengeful queen in “Maleficent” certainly does. The PG-rated Disney movie reimagines the story of “Sleeping Beauty” from the point of view of Maleficent, the fairy who puts a wasting spell on the infant daughter of a young king.

In the 1959 movie, Maleficent is a woman scorned. In 2014, it’s a little more complicated.

Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent, a winged fairy who watches over a peaceful realm of walking trees, friendly bog creatures, and gossipy sprites. There isn’t much interaction with the nearby human kingdom.

But as a young fairy, Maleficent struck up a friendship with a boy, Stefan, that blossomed into a romance. Stefan’s ambition, however, kept him away, as he tried to climb the courtly ladder in service to the king. When that service came to include a full-scale invasion of the fairy realm, Stefan rekindled his friendship with Maleficent in order to cut off her wings and present them to the king as a gift designed to ensure his own succession to the throne.

After this primal act of betrayal and mutilation, things get a little dark for Maleficent. She puts her kingdom on a war footing, sends a crow across to the castle as a spy, and waits for her chance at revenge. The opportunity comes with the birth of Stefan’s daughter Aurora. Maleficent shows up at her christening and intones that famous curse — that she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a wasting sleep.

The codicil that a “true love” kiss might rouse the sleeping princess is recast as a piece of private irony between Stefan and Maleficent, who once shared a heartfelt but ultimately meaningless kiss in the innocence of youth.

Miss Jolie is wonderful, and it’s a good thing: She’s forced to carry the entire weight of the film. Her high, sharp cheekbones naturally align with the undulating black horns that erupt from her head. She toggles effortlessly between full-body wrath and a wry malevolent glee. While she hasn’t been in a live-action film since 2010, she doesn’t seem to have lost a step.

But “Maleficent” is wearying in stretches, relying on voiceover to advance the story. There are some sharply comic moments as Maleficent reluctantly strikes up a relationship with the adolescent Aurora (Elle Fanning). But as her resistance fades and she begins to adore the frankly adorable Aurora, the movie loses a bit of its devilish charm.

The closing credits list some 200 digital artists, and the movie has an overproduced feel. The effects can be cute, but considering how much they must have cost, they aren’t particularly eye-catching, and barring that, they don’t reflect a strong aesthetic point of view.

The castle and its inhabitants are garden-variety, armor-plated folks from the age of heraldry. The creatures in the fairy domain are imaginatively drawn, but not particularly memorable. Miss Jolie did some fine work in front of the green screen, but the post-production folks seem to have let her down.

The dark humor of “Maleficent” isn’t so elevated that children of 9 or 10 won’t be amused, but some of the action sequences are quite intense. While there aren’t many battle deaths, and no blood and gore, the speed of the fighting and the close-ups of blows with swords, fire, and spells will likely alarm younger children.

 ★½

 

 TITLE: “Maleficent”

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Stromberg; written by Linda Woolverton

RATING: PG for scenes of violence that are rather intense for small children, but not gory or otherwise shocking

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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