In Maleficent, we are given new insight into the fairy tale of “Sleeping Beauty” – a story that has apparently been improperly told throughout the ages. We learn the backstory of Maleficent, the evil sorceress of the classic tale, here revealed to be a young and powerful fairy tasked with guarding the enchanted woods. Young Maleficent lets her love of a young farmer’s son distract her heart; but as they come of age, the angel-winged fairy and the boy are pulled apart by obligations to their respective worlds of magic and courtly politics. Then one night, during a seemingly happy reunion, the boy betrays his lady-love in exchange for securing himself a crown.
From there unfolds the story of “Sleeping Beauty” we all know and (sort of) love, only this time – knowing what we know about the fallen fairy with the broken heart – the vengeful sorceress of the tale takes on a whole new light. As Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) watches over and interacts with young princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), the girl she cursed, the pair begin to form a bond that could finally avert the war between Maleficent’s magical minions and the militant armies of her former love, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley).
Disney has gone to great lengths to re-invent its signature princess fairy tales for the modern era, by doing away with old gender stereotypes, or (as of late) re-examining villains in order to demonstrate their complexity and/or tragic nature. While such experiments have proven to be successful in cases like Broadway hit Wicked or Disney’s previous tentpole fairy tale retcon, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent is, by comparison, a heavy-handed (and ultimately unnecessary) parable, which only proves that not all villains are created equal when it comes to relevance or intrigue.
The film is the directorial debut of multi-Oscar-winning visual effects and production design guru Robert Stromberg (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Life of Pi, etc…) – and despite all the negatives, it’s not a bad freshman effort. Maleficent looks like a Disney fairy tale come to reasonably believable life onscreen – at least when there’s a mix of the mystical and Medieval. Things tend to go full Avatar whenever the film moves into the mystical realm that Maleficent guards over (bioluminescent creatures everywhere, lush alien settings and creatures, etc.), and the flood of so much green screen and CGI can be alienating and false at points. However, as stated, whenever the film is balancing the mystical elements with the Medieval world, it becomes a favorable blend of the real and digital, and (literally) illustrates Stromberg’s talent and imagination as a visual storyteller. (Note: 3D is definitely not a requirement for viewing this film.)
The script by Disney/TV veteran Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Alice In Wonderland, Dennis the Menace) is where the film stumbles in a big way. Alice In Wonderland was criticized by many for being style over substance, with little new narrative insight to offer on the classic tale (more just a tweaked rehash of the same story). Woolverton’s Maleficent script tries to go for more substance, but is still hampered by the limitation of this sub-genre (having to retell a well-known story), while the actual point being made is so heavy-handed and biased that it arguably borders on misandry.
Re-imagining an old tale in modern context is fine (damsels in distress becoming more self-empowered – why not?); but Maleficent treats male characters as either inconsequential or downright despicable, while completely spinning a villain into a heroic figure solely by way of victimization. To anyone who is not overly familiar with Disney’s original 1959 Sleeping Beauty animated feature (read: young kids), this film may be an interesting introduction to the story and characters; but again, for those same kids, the metaphor of sexual assault (and the resultant trauma) is arguably too dark. For those who ARE familiar with the original animated feature, this new version will likely be the inspiration of many eye-roll moments, with its extreme re-setting of the narrative table and obvious contradictions.
Angelina Jolie is a captivating lead (her cheekbones alone deserve acting credits) and she manages to make Maleficent a fun and interesting combination of simmering emotion, aristocratic poise and sardonic wit. Sam Riley (On the Road) is a good foil for Jolie as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-changing henchmen who also happens to be the only male character allowed some semblance of actual depth (it’s okay to like him because he’s subservient). The pair have great banter and physical comedy bits (sorcery and shape-shifting), and Riley is particularly good at having his character’s understated expressions and mannerisms help draw out the deeper layers of the Maleficent character.
Other than those two, however, the film is populated by paper-thin (and often annoying) caricatures that seem lifted from the very fairy tale the film is meant to revise. Elle Fanning is almost cartoonishly saccharine as princess Aurora, and Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter 5), Juno Temple (Dark Knight Rises) and Lesley Manville (Vera Drake) give up English thespian cred to run through Three Stooges schtick as Aurora’s fairy godmothers (they also look pretty weird when in Tinker Bell form). Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) is handed the thankless task of playing a prince who is literally treated as an ineffective throwaway character, while Sharlto Copley plays his usual twitchy madman, portraying the king as someone who is about as two-dimensionally evil as the animated film version of Maleficent.
In the end, Maleficent is yet another old Disney product re-packaged with a big-name star and visionary director, in order to sell a “modern” fairy tale to audiences. It has edgy contemporary visuals and theatricality, yes – but beneath that colorful facade, its feminist message is about as a significant and important as a pop-song anthem. In its attempt to depict the “real story” of Sleeping Beauty, this Django Unchained of Disney fairy tales never manages to soar as high as its namesake.
Maleficentis now in theaters. It is 97 minutes long and is Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.
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