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Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Young Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) in Disney’s Maleficent now playing. Photo by Frank Connor
Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Young Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) in Disney’s Maleficent now playing. Photo by Frank Connor
ArtsRancho Santa Fe

Film review: ‘Maleficent’ isn’t quite spell binding

Angelina Jolie provides the visually gorgeous “Maleficent” with a considerable edge due to her engaging performance as the lead, but the film’s preference for extravagant magic rather than soulful magic weakens the spell cast over the audience.

In this untold story of Disney’s iconic “Sleeping Beauty” villain, forest kingdom protector Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) experiences a crushing betrayal, which hardens her heart and compels her to curse Princess Aurora, the newborn daughter of the human king (Sharlto Copley).

As the child grows into a beautiful young woman (Elle Fanning), Maleficent comes to realize that Aurora could be the key to restoring peace throughout the land – and maybe to softening her vindictive edges.

With two-time Oscar-winning production designer Robert Stromberg sitting in the director’s chair and experienced actress Angelina Jolie starring as the lead, it’s easy to see that “Maleficent” has a lot going for it.

When you have a gigantic visual presentation claiming that it will impress based on its overall appearance, what could possibly go wrong?

We’ve seen Stromberg demonstrate his talent for art direction in major blockbusters “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland”; “Maleficent” is the latest canvas he has conquered.

Using a style in which the familiar is augmented by the fantastic, he succeeds in accentuating the elegance and beauty of the human and fairy worlds, whether the scene takes place inside an imposing castle or within a lush forest.

Stromberg’s background enables him to use costumes to help define somebody’s traits, the most prominent example being Maleficent. From the makeup to the costumes, as well as those iconic horns, there is no denying that the black-clad fairy fixing her gaze on the audience is the notorious Disney character we remember.

Angelina Jolie certainly looks and sounds like Maleficent, and it’s obvious she enjoyed playing the title role, which also happens to be her favorite Disney character. In spite of her strong performance and the artistic victory, however, “Maleficent” is not invulnerable, and Stromberg’s emphasis on visuals affects both the story and characters to a significant degree.

For starters the relationship between Maleficent and King Stefan isn’t well-developed; his reasons for doing what he does to the former are neither coherent nor believable, and not enough is explained to clear up these matters. Their chemistry lacks the depth needed to create a truly riveting who-vs.-who scenario, and Copley’s one-dimensional portrayal of Stefan does little to alleviate the damage.

There’s not much I can say about the other cast members and their characters; then again, that probably has to do with the fact that this film doesn’t really belong to them. The three pixies tasked with raising Aurora until her 16th birthday – Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville) – aren’t interesting and come off instead as obnoxious distractions. As for Aurora herself…well, Elle Fanning’s wooden performance is the direct result of what little material there is for her to explore.

Furthermore, I think the so-called similarities between this film and the original 1959 animated feature work only on a superficial level. I understand this is a re-imagining of the villain’s story, but apart from a few scenes that reminded me of what I’d seen as a kid, the whole thing became less and less recognizable as the minutes ticked by. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s slow, tiresome pace after Aurora’s christening contributed to the problem.

And why introduce a large-scale conflict between humanity and magical creatures when it isn’t the main focus of the film?

Even if that guarantees massive action sequences, you shouldn’t include such a plot element if you’re not going to nurture it in a proper manner. That’s not storytelling. That’s what I call a waste of resources.

Well, well…it seems as though “Maleficent” cannot quite cast the enchantment it wants to achieve the desired result. Jolie’s efforts are a saving grace, but while the artistry behind the film is undoubtedly impressive, it still causes the entire thing to fall prey to the same “spectacle over soul” curse that has plagued and continues to plague most big-budget films.

MPAA rating: PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.

Run time: 1 hour and 37 minutes

Playing: In general release