The first thing you learn in “Maleficent” is that the title character, like Jessica Rabbit, isn’t bad but was just drawn that way.
That’s a lot to conjure with, considering how for 55 years, the Disney classic “Sleeping Beauty” has depicted Maleficent as the meanest of the Mouse House’s many villains.
But if anyone can find good in this baddie, it’s Angelina Jolie — who dominates this gorgeous live-action revision that aims to “tell an old story anew, and we’ll see how well you know it,” as the narrator (Janet McTeer) introduces it.
We meet Maleficent as a young fairy (played by newcomer Isobelle Molloy), a good-hearted winged creature in a moor full of magical beings. Maleficent’s leaderless land borders a kingdom of fearful, warlike humans. But when Maleficent meets her first human, Stefan (Michael Higgins), he’s a child like her. They grow up together, and she loses her heart to him.
Stefan grows into an ambitious man (played by “District 9” star Sharlto Copley) whose only route to the throne is by destroying Maleficent. He can’t bring himself to kill her, but he does something worse: He cuts off her wings and presents them as his claim to the throne.
Years later, King Stefan becomes father to the beautiful Aurora. At her christening, Maleficent descends to exact her revenge by placing a curse: Before midnight on her 16th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s needle and fall into “a sleep like death” that can be broken only by “true love’s first kiss.”
Stefan hides the baby Aurora away to a cottage, to be raised by three pixies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville). But then something happens that the ’55 version never imagined: Maleficent’s minion Diaval (Sam Riley) finds the cottage, which leads Maleficent to take part secretly in Aurora’s rearing — until the time when she’s a beautiful, innocent teen (played by Elle Fanning).
First-time director Robert Stromberg plays to his strengths, which are in the movie’s look and the effects. (He’s won two Oscars for art direction, for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.”) Every frame pops with bits of wonder and awe, whether in the colors of the magical moor or the brooding shadows in Stefan’s castle. True to the original “Sleeping Beauty,” the images may induce nightmares in the very young, regardless of the PG rating.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes the dare to tinker with Maleficent, changing her relationship with Aurora and adding a tragic backstory. Woolverton’s a true-blue Disney veteran (she wrote “Beauty and the Beast” and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”), and her instincts toward humanizing Maleficent don’t detract from the fascinating, deliciously evil character we all know.
It wouldn’t work, though, without Jolie. With devilish horns and augmented cheekbones by makeup legend Rick Baker, Jolie provides the scariest special effects just by manipulating her much-photographed mouth into a maniacal smile or a fearsome laugh. She’s also the only actress of her generation who can make such ferocious acting feel regal and convincingly turn Maleficent into both hero and villain.
Angelina Jolie mixes the perfect blend of fire and ice to play Disney’s classic villain in this daring revision of the “Sleeping Beauty” legend.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.
Running time • 97 minutes.