Disney has been on a kick lately of turning animated properties into live-action prequels, sequels, and various and sundry. After the massive success of 2010's Alice in Wonderland, it seemed like a no-brainer for them to continue down this path, despite the film's rampant mediocrity. While last year's Oz: The Great and Powerful was not necessarily based on an animated property, it was another example of the studio favoring spectacle over story, and the film was a total mess that couldn't possibly live up to the hyperbole contained within its title.
When advertisements began to appear for Maleficent, it felt like another trip down this same well-worn path, this time taking one of Disney's most iconic villains and just telling the same old story just from her point of view. With a first-time director, Robert Stromberg, at the helm, and a screenplay by Linda Woolverton, author of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, the deck seemed pretty stacked against this one. Could Maleficent transcend all that, or is it doomed to be the third in a string of stinging disappointments? Read on to find out...
Wisely positing itself as simply a different version of the events we already know, rather than attempting to flesh out the Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent opens on our title character as a young, winged fairy that lives in the Moors, a magical wooded area bordering a human kingdom. Her world is turned upside down one day, when she discovers a human boy named Stefan in the Moors, and the two become fast friends. As the years go by, Stefan stops visiting Maleficent, and she appears to have forgotten all about him, but when the vicious King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) of the human world tries to reclaim the Moors, an adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) summons all the creatures of the forest to lay waste to the humans.
The wounded Henry besieges his followers to avenge him, and promises the throne to whomever will slay Maleficent. The adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley) steps forward and ventures to see his old friend. He drugs Maleficent and attempts to kill her, but finds that he cannot follow through, so to spare her and the Moors, he cuts off her wings and returns with them, finding himself crowned king when Henry dies. Maleficent, in a rage over the loss of her wings, vows revenge on Stefan, and permanently cuts the Moors off from the human world. She is unclear of how precisely to get her revenge, but when Stefan and his wife have a baby girl, she devises a plan to finally take her vengeance on Stefan and the humans.
Here's the thing that any audience member is going to have to get past in order to enjoy Maleficent. This is not Sleeping Beauty, nor is it an attempt to stay faithful to that original story. It is a carefully crafted series of variations on all of those familiar story beats that in no way, shape, or form detracts from the original, but merely presents its own version of those same events. Those hoping to hear the name Briar Rose, or to see the virtuous trio of fairies from Sleeping Beauty in the same light, or to see Maleficent herself transform into a dragon are going to be sorely disappointed, and would do well to just avoid the film altogether. The film doesn't attempt to make Maleficent a flawless and virtuous character, but anyone hoping for her to retain remorseless villainy will also be up in arms over the direction this story takes her.
Those willing to go along for the ride, however, are going to find a simply fantastic fantasy film that beautifully plays a variation on a tune you know by heart. This film's existence doesn't negate Sleeping Beauty's, but rather compliments it in such a way that it can be equally cherished by fans of the original who know it inside and out, as well as a new breed of filmgoers who maybe don't know it as well. The production design is gorgeously rendered, and though aspects of it are a bit too cartoony, there's none of the over-the-top nonsense that bogged down Burton's Alice and Raimi's Oz. The best fantasy is that which allows the scenarios to be fantastical while the performers ground themselves in as much reality as possible, something that Jim Henson knew all too well, and that's precisely what we get here.
The film is not without its flaws, but it's also a good story told fantastically, that breezes by in just over ninety minutes. In other words, it never overstays its welcome, and it moves with alacrity from point to point, always keeping the end in sight. The visual splendor is incredible, with the only exception being that aforementioned trio of fairies, here renamed and re-rendered as a bumbling bunch of biddies that can't seem to do anything right. The problem was not with this variation on their characters, which worked marvelously, but rather with the creepy cgi employed to shrink Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville down to pixie size before allowing them to appear as normal humans when they take Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) to the woods to raise her.
It's almost impossible to believe that I've gotten this far into the review without singing the praises of Angelina Jolie, which should be sung as loud as humanly possible. She is easily 90% of why the film works as well as it does. She is a major league badass in this film, and carries herself with a grace that nicely compliments her delicious line deliveries. It may sound absurd, but it's hard to think that she won't become the iconic representation of this role in the future, and even those who won't appreciate the film for what it is will have an extremely hard time finding even a sliver of fault in her performance. Sharlto Copley continues to be one of the most interesting actors around, always willing to take risks, never playing it safe, and always being fascinating to watch. He could've stolen the whole film had he not been up against the sensationally fierce Jolie.
The rest of the cast is very good, including Sam Riley, so brilliant as Ian Curtis in Control, as Maleficent's shape-shifting sidekick, and Elle Fanning does very good work as Aurora. The message of female empowerment can't help but feel derivative of Frozen, if only because that film was such a juggernaut, but it will ring no less true for all the young, and young at heart, women in the audience. It's the kind of thing that isn't necessarily earth-shattering when held up to progress which society has made in the years since Sleeping Beauty was released, but in light of the consistent relegation of women to second fiddle throughout Disney's history, it's another huge step in the right direction.
Maleficent is going to bother a lot of people, and it's going to enthrall just as many. That I fall into the latter camp is, to my mind, a sign that the film succeeded at what it set out to do, but do not be surprised to read as many negative things about the film as I have said positive. The film is a massive success, and finally achieves that balance Disney must have had in mind when it began rolling out these live action properties. It's reverent of the source material without being slavishly faithful to it, and it plays like any good summer blockbuster should, and anyone who doubts what an unrivaled badass Angelina Jolie is will be in for the shock of their lives. Both she and Maleficent are simply magnificent.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]