”Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it.” The first line of Maleficent could be emblazoned on a sticker and slapped onto the back-bumper of Hollywood, an industry that has at this point become more interested in recycling than Ed Begley, Jr. The classic movies, characters, and franchises of the past are dead dinosaurs that have since turned into precious, commodifiable oil, and no one is sitting on top of a richer reservoir than Disney. The latest to come galloping out of the vault is Maleficent, which casts Angelina Jolie — somehow made more angular and aloof — as one of the studio’s great animated villains, the horned epitome of evil from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. As with other perspective-switch narratives like Grendel or Wide Sargasso Sea (or even Wicked) the film exists to fill in the cracks of the original story, giving context to a character’s antagonism. Betrayed by her childhood love (Sharlto Copley) so that he could become king, Maleficent curses the princess Aurora (Elle Fanning): She will prick her finger on a spinning wheel by her 16th birthday and fall into a death-like sleep. The hex is one made by a woman scorned and, according to this revisionist fairy tale, soon regretted, as the cuddlier version of the villainess becomes a reluctant fairy godmother to Aurora.
Robert Stromberg, the production designer responsible for the horizon-less CGI dreamscapes of Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful, and Avatar, makes his directorial debut and — surprise! — there’s a lot of levitating cliffs and odd flora. But despite their bleeding-edge digital design, the backgrounds have all the depth of the old matte-painted backgrounds of the analog days. That might not be an accident, since a lot of Maleficent feels classical in nature. The characters are boiled down to their essentials, the humor is timelessly broad, and Jolie’s at her best when she’s curling her claws and elongating her vowels like a black-sabbath Tallulah Bankhead. Unfortunately, the story is more than a bit of a muddle, a string of sequences that shuttle the characters back and forth between the film’s sole two locations, a castle and a magic forest. And somehow, there’s only enough time for Sleeping Beauty to get five minutes of shut-eye before she’s almost immediately awoken by true love’s kiss. That’s not a death-like sleep, that’s a power nap. B-