A quick re-watch for anyone with a hazy memory of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty reveals that the 1959 film has a lot of problems – just one of which being the complete apparent lack of motivation for its catalytic villain, Maleficent. She sort of just shows up at the princess’ christening and casts the infamous “sleep like death” spell. She’s barely even in the Disney movie, really. For screenwriter Linda Woolverton, this leaves a nearly blank canvas with which to re-imagine the character’s story. For director Robert Stromberg, this is an opportunity to create an entire magical world as the setting for said tale.
Yes – Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is also technically based on the classic fairy tales, but the story told in Maleficent seems exclusively tailored to the Disney character. Opening the film with a re-imagining of Maleficent’s past, her story is told like a connect-the-dots puzzle where each dot represents one of her physical traits: here’s why she walks with a staff, this is what’s up with her and that crow, it’s time to talk about that headpiece, etc. It’s in between these style landmarks that Maleficent’s new truth is revealed.
For a PG film, the back-story of the character cuts deeply. The script seems to go out of its way to symbolize much darker, adult topics with a scene or two involving Maleficent and soon-to-be-king Stefan (Sharlto Copley), adding significant depth to this psychological fairy tale. It might seem silly to ascribe such human trauma to a mythical world, but it’s precisely in these potentially laughable moments that co-stars Jolie and Copley bring the drama – and they totally sell it. Elle Fanning performs to task, too, as Aurora, though her character isn’t as demanding.
The script is perfectly adequate in carrying along the plot, adding solid emotion, and satisfying Disney nerds, but it’s Stromberg’s vision of Maleficent’s magical kingdom that captivates the most, realized with Avatar-style fullness. And it’s no surprise; Maleficent may be Stromberg’s directorial debut, but the man’s got one of the most impressive visual effects credentials in Hollywood, working on everything from Pan’s Labyrinth to, you guessed it, Avatar. Additionally, his re-tellings of the classic Sleeping Beauty scenes are just grandiose enough to theatrically expand on the originals without overdoing it. The christening/spell-casting scene sticks out particularly, in which the effects, Jolie’s performance, and James Newton Howard‘s score all meld together seamlessly.
Beyond attempting to be different in a time of amazing CGI universes — I mean come on, we have The Hobbit — Maleficent also bears the curse of fitting into a specific sub-genre along with Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland, and both of 2012’s Snow White films: classic tales re-imagined. Fortunately for Maleficent, this grouping has been almost absent of anything above average. The real challenge for any kids’ film in 2014 is having to exist without being completely buried by the sheer mania of Disney’s Frozen. Is Maleficent as good as Frozen? Of course not, but it does offer another opinion on “true love” and its first kiss.
Stromberg’s concept of Maleficent’s hometown takes us to the Moors, whimsical and arboreal, in a Fern Gully kind of way. The setting is gorgeous and the quality of the effects is obviously top-notch, but in a jaded era with a stream of visually mind-blowing releases each month, it’s the level of imagination and detail put into the magical characters that make Maleficent stand out. There’s a notable range of unforgettable creatures introduced, albeit briefly, that definitely stand up to Stromberg’s credentials.
That being said, a bit more exposition on a few supporting personalities – namely Flittle, Knotgrass, and Thistletwit (2014’s version of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather) would’ve really helped in presenting a cohesive fairy world for Maleficent to thrive in and even rule over. These three fairies are as much of a mystery now as they were in 1959. Why should they care about helping the king? Why is the Juno Temple fairy so much younger than the other two? Why are they sometimes called pixies?
Maleficent‘s greatest flaws reveal themselves when non-Maleficent characters (like Sam Riley‘s Diaval) are analyzed, though none of these notes inflict much harm on the story. Maleficent is really all about Maleficent – her story, her world, her insanely fierce eyebrows. At the edge of that world, small details start to fall apart. But hey, the movie is called Maleficent, right?
The Upside: Badass magical creatures and stunning make-up; Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley totally bring it; caters pretty heavily to Disney nerds
The Downside: Elle Fanning’s Aurora has little to do here; some of the minor characters don’t really make sense
On the Side: We should all be thankful that they didn’t try to make Jolie’s face green like in Sleeping Beauty.