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Film Review: 'Maleficent'

★★★☆☆
In the House of Mouse's third attempt at reinventing a classic fairytale as a live action adventure, director Robert Stromberg brings us a new twist on Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent (2014), starring Angelina Jolie as the titular villain turned misunderstood hero. Opening to a CGI-heavy landscape, we meet a diminutive Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) dwelling in a tree, fixing broken branches and generally being a child of nature as she flies through the air upon her wings. A voiceover tells us that the world this horned heroine inhabits is divided into two. One is a peaceful land of magic, the Moor, where button-nosed trolls waddle through the marshes and all manner of flying creatures pepper the skies.

The other is the world of men, where greedy kings look towards the Moor with aspirations of conquest. The rub comes in the form of a small thief named Stefan (initially played by Michael Higgins, latterly by a multi-accented Sharlto Copley), who steals Maleficent's heart and laterally her wings in a bid to take power in the human kingdom. He succeeds in seducing the "winged elf" and takes the throne, turning Maleficent into the black-clad witch we know who curses Stefan's daughter in an act of terrible vengeance. What follows is a reinvention of the fairytale, teasing away the traditional tropes in an attempt to bring fresh life to this well-worn fable. Some of the ideas are inventive (if not original), a child of nature corrupted by the sins of men and a not-as-progressive-as-it-thinks twist on the iconic kiss.

Admittedly, Stromberg had quite a challenge on his hands, transforming a character who goes around cursing babies into someone audiences could identify with and root for. Its endeavours are partly rewarded, but the question looms as to who this re-imagining is intended for. The generation that grew up on the 1959 classic may find this new take kindles feelings of nostalgia, but children of today could find the reinvention of iconic moments - such as the infamous christening scene - lost on them. That said, Jolie clearly relishes in the role, referring to a cherubim-cheeked Aurora (played, incidentally, by Jolie's daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) as a "beastie" and cackling in a manner hauntingly similar to Eleanor Audley's terrifying performance as Maleficent in the original. Jolie hops through subtle yet impressive iterations of the classic costume (some coming worryingly close to something you might find in a dominatrix's S&M dungeon), always followed by her loyal servant, the shape-shifting Diaval (a pallid Sam Riley).

It's in the darker moments of the film, especially those that tone down the CGI, that the film shines, holding focus on Jolie's impassioned performance. Literally floating around are a trio of irksome fairies played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple, whose skittish chit-chat irritates more than entertains. Elle Fanning's turn as Aurora is handled well, although as a flaxen-haired princess enchanted with the world around her, she has little scope for her abilities to play with (the less said about Brenton Thwaites' Prince Phillip the better). Yet despite its pitfalls, Maleficent entertains because of Jolie, who holds the wavering threads of Stromberg's spinning wheel together with aplomb. There's certainly enough style and charm to hold audience's attention, vastly improving on the lacklustre Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Oz: The Great And Powerful (2013).

Joe Walsh

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