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Naughty but Nice Film Review: Maleficent

May 30, 2014Ben MK

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Mess with her and you get the horns

By Ben Mk

Even if you don't know her name, you know the tale. It's a classic children's fable and one of the most celebrated films in all of Disney's animated canon — Sleeping Beauty. In the years since its debut in 1959, the film has become immortalized as the definitive version of the story for generations of moviegoers. But what if there was more to the narrative than has already been told? That's the premise behind Maleficent, which puts a new twist on one of the most wicked villains of all time — with the aim of showing that she isn't so wicked after all.

When the world was first introduced to Maleficent over half a century ago, she was very much the epitomy of evil — a vindictive, all-powerful sorceress who brings panic and paranoia to the good King Stefan's kingdom by invoking a deadly curse on his newborn daughter, Aurora. In this reimagining of that beloved story (no doubt inspired in part by the book and Broadway musical, Wicked), first-time director Robert Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton cast the events of Sleeping Beauty in a whole new light, by revealing Maleficent to be a sympathetic character with a tragic backstory all her own.

In their version, she's a creature from the Moors — a fairy — with devilish horns and feathery wings, making her seem at once demonic and angelic. A kingdom all unto itself, the Moors is home to a menagerie of fantastical inhabitants; and as a girl, the pure-of-heart Maleficent glides through it utterly carefree. Her world is forever changed, however, when she encounters a human from the neighboring kingdom — a peasant boy named Stefan, who dreams of one day ascending to the throne — and romance ensues. Their relationship lasts long enough for them to celebrate her sixteenth birthday with true love's kiss; but she soon realizes that it's not meant to be, as he cruelly abandons her to pursue his zealous ambitions of wealth and power.

When they meet again, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie, looking both creepy and statuesque) has become the Moors' most powerful fairy and its de facto guardian, taking it upon herself to protect it from the unprovoked attacks of the human kingdom. But in doing so, she's stoked the ire of the King, who — on his deathbed — offers the kingdom to whomever succeeds in vanquishing her. To appease his majesty and claim the crown for himself, Stefan (Sharlto Copley, trading his South African accent for a Scottish brogue) commits a heinous act of betrayal against his former love, paving his path to the throne. But his actions also spur Maleficent's wrath, and she repays him in kind by visiting the castle upon the birth of his daughter, Aurora, and casting an irrevocable curse upon the child.

Of course, by now you'll have realized that this isn't your grandmother's Sleeping Beauty. Woolverton's screenplay does borrow elements — and even dialog — from that film, but it imparts a radically different perspective on them, redefining characters, their relationships and their motivations. The one constant between the two films, however, is the virtuous and kind-hearted Princess Aurora (portrayed this time around by the effervescent Elle Fanning). Aurora's relationship with Maleficent — whom she considers to be her fairy godmother — plays a vital role in this retelling, serving not only to humanize Jolie's character, but also to help her redeem herself from her descent into villainy.

After all, the film shines its spotlight firmly on Maleficent, with the intent of making her a more relatable and empathetic character. And, to that end, Jolie is magnetic, commanding the audience's full attention from the get-go. Though she emulates her animated counterpart by playing the role with a healthy dose of stone-faced stoicism, her performance also succeeds in offering fleeting glimpses of the sorrow and compassion within her character's heart. But despite the push to convince audiences of Maleficent's softer side, what proves most enjoyable is watching Jolie chew the scenery in those small moments where Maleficent revels in her own delicious brand of venom and wry humor.

The rest of the film just seems to fall into place around her, though some pieces fit better than others. Stromberg (whose previous credits include production design on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful) is no stranger to Disney reimaginings, and here he conjures up a fantasy world full of suitably amusing creature designs and whiz-bang special effects. The post-converted 3D is pleasing to the eye (especially when the camera swoops through the Moors), and there are many visual references that harken back to Sleeping Beauty (not the least of which is Maleficent's costume, which hews closely to legendary Disney animator Marc Davis' original, iconic design).

Other notable mentions include the shapeshifting raven, Diaval (played as a human by Sam Riley), who also assumes the form of a dragon for the film's climax, and a Stooge-like trio of fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) thrown in for comedic relief. However, in the case of the latter, the CG creations seem like they'd be more at home in the uncanny valley than in the Moors. All in all, these add to the film's cartoonish aesthetic, which — if you think about it — is a fitting homage to the source material (intentional or not).

The Bottom Line

Are remakes/reboots/reimaginings ever truly necessary, especially with a film as treasured and as timeless as Disney's Sleeping Beauty? Generally speaking, no. But Maleficent glides around the usual pitfalls of such an endeavor by serving up an alternate account of the classic fairy tale that's rather compelling in its own right, thanks mainly to Angelina Jolie's vampish take on the titular character. Maleficent was heartless in the original, but here she's the heart of the story. And if a film can pull off a drastic 180 degree turn on an established character with such conviction, then it must be doing something right. [★★★½]

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