To call Maleficent a remake of Sleeping Beauty is something of a misnomer. The film is obviously indebted to the existence of Walt Disney’s 1959 animated classic, but Maleficent does not play slave to its source material, nor does it defecate on its ancestor. Rather, it tells a new story that, for better or worse, will require audiences to almost entirely forget (for a well-paced hour and thirty-eight minutes) about the studio’s past efforts. That being said, the ride is a glorious one to take, with brilliant environments all around that range from austere to awe-inspiring, well-played performances and a script that, while imperfect, leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
The film tells the story of (wait for it) Maleficent, queen over a land of fairies known as The Moors and brought to villainy by her first love, the urchin Stefan, whose lust for power betrayed her. Years later, Stefan, now King, has a child, the Princess Aurora, whom Maleficent curses at her christening to fall into eternal sleep at age sixteen, awoken only by true love’s kiss — something that Maleficent believes to be a lie. Years pass, and Aurora grows curious, and even fond, of the fallen fairy that has been watching her intently for sixteen years. Could love have finally broken the barrier in Maleficent’s heart?
The film’s scribe, Linda Woolverton, famed for writing Beauty and the Beast and co-authoring The Lion King, was also the writer of one of my least favorite films of all time — the 2010 remake of Alice in Wonderland, which made little of an attempt to make sense and infuriated me as a viewer. With Maleficent, Woolverton makes a glorious story of betrayal and redemption that hearkens back to the days of the Disney Animation Renaissance. That being said, some parts come to mind as being underdeveloped or unexplained. Why, for instance, does King Stefan turn on Maleficent for the sake of power? We understand that he is orphaned and poor as a child, but one would think that would only bring him closer to the companionship of Maleficent, also an orphan, but among the riches of friends, which Stefan certainly desired (However, had he stayed, it certainly would have been a very short film!). Also, why are objects made of iron harmful to fairies? There’s no explanation given. Still this is a return to grace for Woolverton, one that is only helped by the presence of Disney legend Don Hahn as executive producer, whose eye for quality kept the studio’s animation division sharp from Beauty and the Beast through Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Leading the cast is Angelina Jolie, who thankfully doesn’t play up the grandiose aspect of the title character, nor does she stoop to caricature of Eleanor Audley, the voice of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (though, at times, her voice is a dead ringer.). Jolie makes Maleficent her own, as she should be in context with the script — misled, abused and mocked by the friend she loved so, and just as focused on vengeance as she is on her mortification. Elle Fanning as the grown Princess Aurora shows a kind and naïve wonder that exudes the necessary beauty that the character is famed for, and truly appears saddened when the truth meets her eyes. Sam Reilly (On the Road) portrays Diaval, Maleficent’s raven servant who is given the ability to shapeshift on his mistress’ command. Reilly is given a decent character with some less than great dialogue and does his best with it, and truly, the story would be boring without him.
Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple play the Three Good Fairies, known respectively in this film as Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. They ham up the camp factor a little too much, coming off as cloying and somewhat annoying, with not much of a purpose other than caring for Aurora in her youth. A similar gripe I have with the characters, albeit on a technical level, is how their human-sized selves are live-action while their small, fairy-sized selves are computer animated in motion capture. I can’t see what would have been wrong with face-mapping a filmed performance, and the contrast between sized performances is quite distracting, though livable. Sharlto Copley, of District 9 fame, plays King Stefan as a monarch that grows progressively less merciful as the film goes on, which works fairly well, but I still feel his turn to evil is too sharp to be entirely believable. Perhaps some of the fault goes on him as well as the script, but by the time of the film’s climax, the audience should hate Stefan to the core, and that’s exactly what I did.
The film is directed by freshman helmer Robert Stromberg, a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Art Direction, who brings the visual palette he used on similar films such as Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Oz the Great and Powerful to bring the gorgeous environments of Maleficent to life — make no mistake, this film is a visual feast, which is also thanks to renowned makeup artist Rick Baker (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Wolfman) and award-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves), who craft not just a beautiful picture, but a most enjoyable one.
With a little bit of luck, Maleficent will hold well in the minds of those who see it, and its presentation of evil’s redemption will bring warmth into their hearts.
(SIDENOTE: Depending on your theater’s trend of 3D presentations, you might want to avoid seeing the 3D version. The conversion is spectacular, but the dimness of the image with glasses can travesty the film, which has a lot of night shots. Basically, pay extra at your own risk.)