‘Maleficent’: A Drowsy Account of an Old Tale
The tired cliché of “happily ever after” is aging fast, but viewers need not worry because Maleficent serves up a somewhat refreshing rethink to a dusty story.
This time around, the heroine so to speak is not the beautiful, blonde Aurora who pricked her finger on that famed spindle in the 1959 Disney animated musical Sleeping Beauty, but the fabulous monster Maleficent (played by the forever gorgeous Angelina Jolie) — whose devilish smile and piercing green eyes immediately draw you in — that cursed her in a fit of rage and a puff of acid-green smoke. This unordinary, diverting chronicle does not follow the traditional recipe of Disney fairy tales where good prevails over evil (Maleficent is neither inherently good nor malevolent). But in its divergence, it delivers a tale that comes up short of magnificent.
Like most evil villains these days, this wrathful, revenge-seeking witch didn’t always have a mean streak. Carefree and jovial at heart, Maleficent enjoyed her life in the Moors — the magical, peaceful wooden realm she called home. Though, this serene forest won’t lay undisturbed for long, as its rival human kingdom, ruled by a power-hungry king, will later shake things up.
Whizzing around the Moors, Maleficent as a winged young fairy (Isobelle Molloy) meets a trespassing farmhand named Stefan (Michael Higgins) caught pocketing a precious stone. She quickly forgives him, and the two form a fast friendship that blossoms into young love — a sequence that feels blatantly rushed and briefly features the teenage versions of the pair (Ella Purnell and Jackson Bews). Fast forward to a muddled war scene with a poorly explained purpose, accompanied by over-the-top CGI effects used to create an army of trolls and Ent-like tree people — and the audience is finally introduced to Jolie, the much welcomed scene stealer.
Alas, their love is not meant to be as Stefan’s (now played by Sharlto Copley) greedy ambition to rule ultimately leads to Maleficent’s betrayal in the worst way. Now scorned and shorn, this once pure-hearted fairy is wingless and manless. She retreats into the Moors, shadowing it in the gloom that has taken over her heart, fashions a walking staff from a twig, dons a billowing black cape and becomes the impressive villainess we all know and fear.
Perpetually angry, Maleficent, with her trusted wingman Diaval atop her shoulders (played by Sam Riley when in human form), wallows for years in the magic forest amidst her own ire and vengeful plotting. Though, contrary to Disney princesses, she adopts a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” attitude toward Stefan and quickly gets over him — which is more fun than romantic longing.
The story then picks up where Sleeping Beauty left off — weaving in Maleficent’s own thread — when baby Aurora is born to the now-King Stefan and his forgettable wife.
A scene so iconic in animated movie history, it is a wonder that first-time director Robert Stromberg and company do it justice. Candles blow out, townspeople cower and crowds hush as the wickedly intimidating Maleficent makes her famed entrance. With perfect cherry-shaded lipstick (it took makeup artists over 20 tries to get it right), protruding cheekbones, majestic horns, and an evil laugh so sinister and contagious, it seems that this was a role Jolie was born to play.
But the same cannot be said of Elle Fanning, whose portrayal as Sleeping Beauty comes off more like a giddy schoolgirl — her job consists of laughing and giggling throughout the entire film. Though, it does make one question the original animated character, and whether in fact Aurora was just a ditsy blonde. Despite her shortcomings, Maleficent forms an attachment with the girl, first from afar — hiding behind trees, watching the three annoying, dim-witted pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) care for Aurora at their cabin in the woods — then to become her loving “fairy godmother” of sorts, rethinking her curse.
Seeing Aurora from a different angle ruins not only the idea of a beloved Disney princess, but also the fairy tale classic meeting between prince and princess. Prince Phillip’s (Brenton Thwaites) entrance brings flashbacks of awkward tween years rather than evoking a romantic encounter — for example, the stroppy nervousness or fumbling over his words. His part in the film seems less like a supporting role and more like a dutiful nod to Sleeping Beauty.
Meanwhile, a bland Stefan has turned crazed and paranoid from fear of a revenge-seeking Maleficent. This somewhat jarring character portrayal is disappointing when juxtaposed with Sleeping Beauty’s version of King Stefan, who is more the loving, strong and silent type.
But it’s not all bad. Stromberg does offer some brief moments of comic relief. It turns out Maleficent has a sense of humor — whether it’s harmlessly toying with the bumbling fairies, playfully joining a mud-flinging game with Aurora and some cute creatures, or inserting a quip here and there — even more hilarious with Jolie’s deadpan expression coupled with a hint of reluctant smile underneath.
The CGI effects, while necessary at times to add to the grandeur of Maleficent’s power — the emergence of the wall of thorns mid-movie had an epic feel to it — mostly feel hokey and borderline generic. Perhaps dialing down the amount of CGI would make the film run more smoothly, instead of pulling you out of your trance.
Whilst the movie can be appreciated for its modern, unique point of view and majorly deviating plot twists, one cannot help but feel some nostalgia for the original version.
The only reason to resurrect this classic is to see Jolie’s perfect transformation into the malicious Maleficent (hats off to the costume and makeup team), who, much like Elphaba of Wicked, is simply misunderstood. Jolie makes the film (it’s worth it just to see her performance), but not even her magical powers could turn this screenplay into a hit.
It may make you look at Sleeping Beauty in a new light, but let’s just say that Maleficent is best left hidden away inside the Disney vault.
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
“Maleficent” opened nationwide on May 30, 2014. The film is rated PG and has a running time of 98 minutes.
Video courtesy of Disney Movie Trailers.