There’s really no better place to start than with Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones. The actress naturally has the finely proportioned facial structure of a patrician lady in some toga-clad alien society that Captain Kirk might’ve visited on an old episode of Star Trek. But in this role, via makeup and special effects, each side of her face is drawn at angles so severe that I became fixated on the notion that her bones might slice through the skin above at any moment.
There’s a lot of visual white noise like that in the new Disney film, a reimagining of the studio’s classic 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the villain. So many colors and textures and CGI effects flit and fly across the screen (and in 3D) — none particularly memorable, all nice enough to look at — that the net effect is a dulling of any of its charms. It’s like a restaurant dish overstuffed with ingredients that cancel each other out and result in a relatively bland flavor.
Jolie plays the title character, a fairy who causes a princess to fall into an eternal sleep until a kiss of true love awakens her. That much you probably know from the familiar fairy tale. Only, we’re told by a narrator, we don’t know the real story — why Maleficent cursed Aurora (Elle Fanning) and how her spell came to be broken.
It turns out that Maleficent was once young and good-hearted, living in harmony with all the other magical creatures of the land. She even meets and falls in love with a human, though that’s where her troubles start. Her boyfriend was Aurora’s father, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who betrayed his love in order to ascend to his kingdom’s throne. You can start to understand why Maleficent would set her sights on revenge.
But a funny thing happens after Stefan sends Aurora away to be raised in secret by three hapless fairies until her 16th birthday (when the curse can no longer harm her). Maleficent begins to keep tabs on the girl’s upbringing, to know and care for her, and to regret what she’s done — though she’s powerless to reverse it.
It’s a different take on Sleeping Beauty, but not any more interesting than the original, or maybe even as interesting. For all the visual artistry put into Jolie’s appearance, Maleficent remains a relatively stiff character. Fanning isn’t given much to do other than gaze with astonishment and wear dumbstruck smiles. And the prince who rides to the rescue (Brenton Thwaites) somehow manages to come off as flatter and less complex than his animated-film predecessor.
All of which helps explain why Jolie’s magical cheekbones manage to upstage nearly every scene.