After hundreds of years of moral clarity, suddenly we're getting a new look at these evil creatures called fairy tale villainesses.
They're turning out to be complex beings, and not that bad at all. Really, they've just been misunderstood. By the way, those charming princes? Highly overrated.
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"Maleficent"★ ★ ½
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Miranda Richardson, Juno Temple
Directed by: Robert Stromberg
Other: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG. 97 minutes
The most obvious recent example is "Frozen," the animated Disney blockbuster that showed us how the Snow Queen, long portrayed as an icy-hearted villain possessed a pure and loving heart, and was a tragic victim of circumstance.
Now we have "Maleficent," which tells us that one of the most evil characters in all of pop culture is equally vulnerable and misunderstood.
Plus, she's gorgeous. Duh. She's Angelina Jolie.
All this is a rather seismic development in fairytale-dom. There are numerous versions of "Sleeping Beauty," stemming back even before Charles Perrault's from 1697. In all, the fairy who casts an angry spell on the baby princess, dooming her to prick her finger, has always been just plain nasty.
Now, 55 years after Disney introduced Maleficent in the 1959 classic film -- and colored her skin an eerie green -- the studio presents a live-action (and 3-D) Maleficent who's more superheroine than evil fairy.
Think Maleficent by way of Lara Croft.
In "Maleficent," director Robert Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton take us back to the fairy's youth to better understand her.
She's a plucky young thing with lovely wings and bright pink lipstick, which will turn blood-red when she becomes an adult (the fairy world clearly isn't lacking for cosmetics.)
One day she meets a young man from that other, darker world where humans live. The two form a strong bond. But the ugliest human emotions -- jealousy and ambition -- intervene. Young Stefan will grow into the power-hungry older Stefan (the wild-eyed South African actor Sharlto Copley.) His stunning betrayal of Maleficent will instantly harden her, turning her into the villainess we recognize.
Alas, the story's still all about a guy.
"Maleficent" is targeted to the same audience -- young and female -- that has lovingly embraced "Frozen" and its appealing messages of female solidarity and empowerment.
"Frozen" felt clever, charming and fresh. "Maleficent" less so.
Part of this is due, paradoxically, to Jolie's star wattage. Don't get me wrong: she's the best thing about the movie, and worth watching.
But it blunts the effectiveness of the narrative if we can never quite believe Maleficent is bad. That's because we know she's essentially good, and she seems to know that we know it. You can see it in the upturned wrinkle of her mouth.
The other characters are simply not that interesting: Stefan, but also Elle Fanning's Aurora, alias "Sleeping Beauty." Aurora's best scenes are when she's a gurgling baby and then, adorably, a toddler, played by 5-year-old Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. (In the movie's one big laugh, Maleficent tells Aurora, "I don't like children.")
Fanning's Aurora is too boringly sweet, especially compared to the fabulous-in-every-way Maleficent, with her blazing lips, fashionable black headgear and exaggerated cheekbones, plus her way around a quip.
In the end, "Maleficent" is fun for its appealing visuals -- especially in the forest -- and for watching Jolie. But that's not enough.
As the minutes tick by, you might even start feeling a bit like Sleeping Beauty.