Angelina Jolie chews the scenery but manages to steal the show in Disney’s latest visual feast Maleficent.
Stunning imagery and typical fairytale arrangement form this classic Disney picture that purports to be the real story of Sleeping Beauty and the curse that launched a thousand thorns. For this narrative, Maleficent is the main character, and we not only get her backstory, but several alterations from both the Grimm fairytale and original Disney film.
Two kingdoms stand close together but their inhabitants could not be further apart; the creatures of the moors spend their days dedicated to the magic in their home while the human leaders of the adjoining kingdom sit in envy of their strange neighbors. Maleficent (Jolie), the most powerful fairy in the moors, becomes a protector for her people from human greed and interference. As a child, Maleficent is wise beyond her years, curious, but still guarded. When she catches Stefan (who grows up to be Sharlto Copley), a young human boy stealing a mystical stone, the two form an instant bond that grows into a one-sided love story. Stefan, an orphan who lives in a barn, covets the life of those who inhabit the castle. When he is given the opportunity to become king, he betrays Maleficent and takes the throne.
Bitterness fills the once vibrant and caring fairy; she names herself Queen of the Moors and vows revenge against Stefan and his kingdom. Her chance comes in the form of baby Aurora (Elle Fanning), princess and daughter of Stefan. During her christening, where all manner of beings from the land converge to offer gifts to the young princess including three pixie fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville), Maleficent seizes her chance for vengeance. She curses the young princess to fall into a deep sleep on her sixteenth birthday that will last forever unless she is presented with true love’s kiss.
Stefan shuts himself in the castle and orders the three pixie fairies to raise Aurora in secret, plotting and planning for Maleficent’s eventual return and the subsequent battle that will take place. While in hiding, the pixies are not exactly up to the task of raising a human child, and so Maleficent – always in the shadows, watching with curiosity – becomes something of a dark guardian angel for the child. A story of envy, misunderstandings, and ultimately redemption, Maleficent is a highly enjoyable dive into a well-known fairytale – that is, until you start to peel back the layers and really examine the work.
The cast does their job well, each diving into the character they’re given, especially Jolie. She was born to play this multifaceted, equal parts devious and magical character. When she is on screen, her beauty and charisma carry the weight of each scene. Jolie gives herself fully to Maleficent, taking the audience along for the ride. Copley is a willing and adept adversary — that is, talent-wise. Unfortunately, Stefan is such a one-note caricature, Copley is given very little to work with. In fact, all of the characters – save Maleficent and her companion Diaval – live on the surface, never offering more than one way of being. Fanning is a sweet representation of Aurora, wide-eyed, innocent, and full of love. Initially drawn to Maleficent, a particularly strong scene comes in the moment she discovers the truth of her “fairy godmother.” When the two are on screen, their chemistry is palpable (I will repress the urge to make a big mouth joke here; if Julia Roberts had been added to the cast, the three chompers probably couldn’t fit on the screen together…Did I say repress?) The Pixie Fairies Flittle, Knotgrass, and Thistlewit become unbearably annoying with every passing moment of screen time. Their consistent ignorance and selfish attitudes, not to mention their Three Stooges-like characterization, makes for a great deal of uncomfortable shifting in one’s seat. I would have been happy to see them wiped from the story altogether. Further, when Prince Plot Device Philip (Brenton Thwaites) shows up, the film is already so crowded with unexamined motivations, the viewer has lost his/her ability to care.
I think the filmmakers missed quite a few opportunities in the movie to offer two sides to the story. Yes, we get both sides of Maleficent, but Stefan always comes off as greedy and selfish. The only reason we believe he loved Maleficent as a child is because the narrator tells us. So much happens in exposition that would have offered a more interesting and sophisticated story if lived out on screen. At only ninety-seven minutes, the film would have benefited greatly from examining character motivations from its lead characters. And for a story that purports to explore Maleficent’s reasoning, shouldn’t we also understand why the man responsible acted the way he did? And even though the betrayal is obvious, the impact would have been heightened should we have connected more with Stefan. I have to hand it to Jolie, again, however; the moment she realizes the depth of Stefan’s greed, her collapse into the Evil Queen is delightfully wicked and heartbreaking. And again, if the Pixie Fairies were shown caring or loving Aurora in any way, her ultimate decision to leave them and explore her roots would have been a moment of decision instead of an absolute.
Finally, for a moment, let’s discuss this recent trend of villains having a rich backstory. No one is merely evil anymore; their heinous actions stem from a moment of betrayal or suffering. Even modern heroes have a dark and twisty past that must be examined or overcome before they can root out the evil in the word. In less capable hands, Maleficent would have been silly and derivative, but Jolie so owns it that we are happy to be taken along for the predictable yet somewhat satisfying ride. I don’t doubt that evil is made and not born, but sometimes, people – or, er fairies – do things simply because they can. The predictability factor is high on this one, but aren’t all fairytales by now? I did, however, enjoy the explanation for the pesky “true love’s kiss” clause most curses seem to have these days — it’s explained rather satisfactorily.
The violence is heightened here, and I question the PG rating given by the MPAA. There is very little blood, but people do die, and the battle scenes rival those in the Lord of the Rings and other modern fantasy films. Yes, Maleficent is dark and full of vengeance and hatred for her would-be captors, but so many of the characters are downright mean and angry, it is a wonder you can root for anyone at all.
This film is much more about right and wrong instead of the classic good and evil, noting that sometimes you have to live the bad in order to bring about paradise. Lovely visuals, twisty plots, and a good ol’ happy ending, Maleficent is adequate summer fun. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but most moviegoers will enjoy their time in this kingdom.