Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly referred to Prince Phillip as the character who is Princess Aurora’s father. Her father is King Stefan. The review also spelled Phillip as Philip. Both errors have been corrected.
One of the imperatives of stardom, and one of the most difficult to navigate, is the management of a screen persona over time, somehow balancing one’s artistic ambitions, the audience’s expectations and plain old-fashioned aging to create a career that gracefully spans characters, stories and — with any luck — generations.
Angelina Jolie delivers a savvy example of this in “Maleficent,” a feminist-revisionist take on the Sleeping Beauty myth in which she inhabits the story’s evil fairy, a once-happy winged sprite who, consumed with heartbreak and revenge, places a curse on a baby princess. With her glinting eyes, chilly hauteur and blade-like cheekbones (prosthetically enhanced for maximum cutting power), the increasingly iconic Jolie has finally transformed herself into living ice sculpture. The only remotely human thing about her is a pair of garnet lips that occasionally widen into a blindingly white rictus grin.
If that sounds frightening, it is. But it’s also kind of cool. And when Jolie’s Maleficent fixes her penetrating gaze on the victim of her curse, a cherubic toddler named Aurora, and says, “I don’t like children,” the audience is in on the joke. This is Angelina Jolie: humanitarian, mother of six, embodiment of her highly personal brand of cosmopolitan compassion. The trick, filmgoers find out, is how “Maleficent” will fuse that identity with the wicked title character’s.
Watching Jolie pose and smolder and glower is the chief attraction of “Maleficent,” which posits that the reason for Maleficent’s rage wasn’t being left out of a christening party for Aurora, but instead started years earlier, when she fell in love with the princess’s father, King Stefan. Propelled by passion, power and betrayal, this iteration of the fable — written by Linda Woolverton and based on stories by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm — isn’t a lot of fun. (“I wish she had smiled more,” one tween viewer was overheard saying after a recent screening.) It’s dark and brooding and full of aggressive, unsettling impulses. What comic relief there is comes in the form of Aurora’s three caretaking fairies, played by the fabulous British actresses Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple; Sam Riley is on hand as Maleficent’s factotum, a crow named Diaval. But even the enlivening efforts of these fine players are small beer compared with Jolie’s imposing bellicosity as a horned, embittered avenging angel. To viewers of a certain age, watching Jolie coolly regarding her young victim will remind them of murder-minded Gene Tierney watching her own adolescent quarry in the noir thriller “Leave Her to Heaven.”
But when Aurora becomes a teenager — at which point she’s played by the ethereal Elle Fanning — and that fateful encounter with a spinning wheel beckons, “Maleficent” makes its most radical pivot, allowing the complex relationship between the two women to eclipse outdated notions of consciousness-raising by way of a handsome prince. The drama, handsomely staged and filmed by director Robert Stromberg, is larded with now-requisite set pieces of wartime battles and slashing fights, but it’s the psychological interplay between Maleficent and Aurora — obsession, antagonist and lost mirror image — that throws off the most sparks.
In all, the film is a relatively subdued, even dour affair. There’s no reason on earth for “Maleficent” to be seen in 3-D, unless you count Jolie’s cheekbones as screen-busting special effects. On the heels of “Frozen,” it’s difficult to see this far more somber tale inviting the same feel-good fealty among youngsters and their adult companions. Still, for all its limitations, “Maleficent” manages to be improbably entertaining to watch, due solely to its title character. As befits a star of her regal standing and superb self-awareness, Angelina Jolie has managed to bend even the Brothers Grimm to her indomitable will.
★ ★ ½
In area theaters. Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images. 97 minutes.