Angelina Jolie’s Sex Appeal Can’t Save This Tale of a Horny Villainess

Truly witchy woman

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent.

“Let us tell an old story anew, and we will see how well you know it.”

So goes a voice-over at the beginning of Maleficent, Robert Stromberg’s visually stunning if narratively predictable debut feature. The story, of course, is Sleeping Beauty or, if you prefer, the fairy tale on which the 1959 animated Disney classic is based.


Maleficent ★★
(2/4 stars)

Written by: John Lee Hancock and Linda Woolverton
Directed by: Robert Stromberg
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley and Elle Fanning
Running time: 97 min.


Written by Disney veteran Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), Maleficent is a sly update of the children’s fable in which a princess is cursed at birth to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into eternal sleep—only to be awakened by love’s first kiss. The character that gives the film its title is the one who does the cursing, and she is given the backstory the film’s creators seem to think she deserves—and the sex appeal.

Maleficent is played with icy grace by Angelina Jolie, whose feline eyes and jagged cheekbones go well with her costume of wings and twisted black horns. Maleficent, we are shown, isn’t all that bad; she’s aggrieved. The bad guy, in this scenario, is King Stefan, portrayed on screen by the South African actor Sharlto Copley, who played a convincing villain last summer in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi dystopia, Elysium, but here feels underdeveloped and a bit too manic for his own good.

Stefan doesn’t start out evil, nor is Maleficent born vindictive. They first meet as orphaned children. He’s human; she’s a fairy living in the moors, an enchanted land populated by all manner of wonderful creatures. They fall in love but drift apart as Stefan, blinded by ambition, works his way up the regal ladder. Maleficent, in turn, becomes the moors’ protector as her domicile is besieged by the king’s territorial advancement. To win the king’s approval and claim the throne, Stefan drugs Maleficent and cuts off her wings with an iron chain—iron being, apparently, a fairy’s only weakness. In so doing, he invites upon himself and his family the worst of enemies. 

And so that old story is told anew. Somewhat in the mold of John Gardner’s novel Grendel, which came out of the Beowulf story, it makes the antagonist the protagonist by empathizing with her. The question is: Why tell the Sleeping Beauty story anew? With this half-hearted film, Mr. Stromberg, the visual effects wizard behind such big-budget blockbusters as Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland and Avatar, can’t provide an answer. Perhaps more importantly, why is she called Maleficent? It seems unlikely that we’ll find out. In the meantime, we await similarly nonsensical films devoted to the evil queen in Snow White, Cruella de Vil and the hunter in Bambi.