At the beginning of the new Disney spectacle Maleficent, a calm sounding female voice-over narrates: “Let us tell an old story anew.” What follows may not be what you’re expecting.
Maleficent is one of the great female villains, ever. In the original animated classic, the woman was without redemption, a walking manifestation of evil. She both relished and celebrated her cruelty. Just as the Broadway musical Wicked explored a different side to a fantasy bad girl, the live action version of Maleficent does the same; it goes back to the character’s roots, first as a child, then as a young woman in love, and invites us to see the reasoning behind the eventual wickedness. In other words, what you thought you knew was never exactly true.
The arc of the Sleeping Beauty story is essentially the same, but it’s the introduction that alters the perception. Maleficent is first seen as a young girl, an altogether agreeable and pleasant fairy with horns and enormous wings who lives in peace in the moors, not too far from the royal castle. When a vengeful and dying king states that any man who kills the winged creature shall have the crown, a young man with ambition and an eye on being the new ruler, Stefan, enters the moors, knife at the ready. At the last minute, after lulling the young fairy into a sleep, he can’t quite finish the job. Instead, he cuts off her precious wings and takes them back to the dying king’s bedside as proof that he, Stefan, had killed the creature.
From that moment, everything you may have remembered from the animated classic is suddenly turned on its head. No matter what she does, no matter what curses she inflicts on others, it’s no longer Maleficent deserving of our hatred, it’s the man who would be king, Stefan (Sharlto Copley).
Angelina Jolie is simply perfect. The pre-publicity shots and the various teaser trailers had already shown that, but while watching the complete film, you begin to realize it’s not just her appearance that captures the essence of what we remember of the animated villain, it’s her whole performance. With a pitch-perfect English accent that practically oozes with sly delight whenever she speaks, Jolie actually succeeds in making us care about the character. She’s still evil, sure, and she still finds amusement in the fear of others, but in a setting like this, no matter what she does, knowing what we now know about what made her bad, there’s never a moment when your sympathies are not still with her in some way.
There’s also humor. When Maleficent causes a small but thunderous rainstorm inside the cottage where the teenage Princess Aurora is living under protection – you know the story – the evil fairy’s black crow feigns disapproval. “Oh, come on,” purrs the lady in black with a raised eyebrow and a smile. “That’s funny,”
But unlike the classic tale, the live action Maleficent is capable of feeling. When she first sees the Princess Aurora as a baby, the wingless fairy becomes an imposing, nightmarish figure as she leans over the crib and states “It’s so ugly you could almost feel sorry for it.” But later when she gets to know the princess as a teenager (Elle Fanning), things change. Regarding the curse of eternal sleep, a somewhat redeemed Maleficent states, “I will not ask for forgiveness, for what I’ve done to you is unforgivable.” She even tries to change her own curse, but the spell is firm.
There are issues, however. With powers that appear limitless, Maleficent can seemingly do anything. By a slight flick of her finger, soldiers fall aside or are levitated. By the command of a single word, she can make characters turn into whatever creature she wants, big or small. With this in mind, how is it that when she’s cornered by the king’s men in the castle, ready for capture, she can’t throw a quick spell and have them clear the way? With a flick of her wrist and a magic word here or there, couldn’t she simply turn them all into toads or something? Without her wings, she may no longer be able to fly, but couldn’t she at least make herself levitate when needed? Considering what she can do to others, why is there an unspoken limit on what she can do to help herself?
Plus, while the film succeeds in giving flesh to animated characters we’ve known for years, the part of Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites), the handsome young man who is supposed to wake Aurora from her eternal sleep with true love’s kiss, appears rushed. In fact, the character hardly registers and comes across more as an after-thought. Once the film is over he’s all but forgotten.
But despite some hiccups with narrative logic and character differences, Maleficent surprises and impresses. The film may appear animated heavy during the lengthy introduction to Maleficent’s childhood, and the final fifteen minutes may feel as though everything is rushing to a conclusion, but there’s beauty in watching a young fairy gracefully fly with those huge wings and there’s joy in watching Angelina Jolie doing evil so well. Purists who want their favorite villain left untouched by guilt might complain, but everyone else should be fine. In a film where practically every frame is built with a computer generated special effect, in the end the best effect of all is Angelina Jolie.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 97 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)