There are no bad guys in movies any more, just good guys who are misunderstood or had terrible childhoods. Whether it’s the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the band of car thieves in Gone in Sixty Seconds, or the terribly misunderstood, abused-as-a-child Norman Bates from Bates Motel (and thence Psycho) our society seems obsessed with trying to understand what causes people to be bad.
And those Disney films we loved as children? Same thing. Ursula wasn’t bad in The Little Mermaid, just misunderstood. The hunter who killed Bambi’s Mom? Some day we’ll learn it was just a guy whose wife had tragically died and was trying to feed his children so they could grow up and become PETA activists.
Into that same apologist zeitgeist comes Maleficent with a retelling of the 1959 Disney hit Sleeping Beauty. In that groundbreaking animated feature, you might recall that Maleficent was the evil witch who cursed the beautiful Princess Aurora at the baby’s christening. Before Aurora reaches her 16th birthday, Maleficent proclaimed, she will fall into a sleep unto death by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning-wheel. Yikes. The King destroys every spinning wheel in the kingdom and hides Aurora in the forest, to be raised by three good-natured but rather dim fairies. But prick her finger she does and it’s only the kiss of her true love that will awaken her from her slumber.
Maleficent sticks surprisingly well to the original story, but weaves a far more complex tale where Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie) and the future King Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley) meet as young children, then become friends and eventually fall in love as teenagers (as teens, Maleficent is played by Ella Purnell, and Stefan by Jackson Bews). A promised kiss of true love isn’t that at all, however, and when King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) is mortally wounded during a failed assault on Maleficent’s fairy kingdom, he offers his throne to whomever can kill Maleficent. Stefan grasps the opportunity and though he falters when poised to kill his former teen crush (shades of Snow White), he severs her wings and ascends to the throne.
Unsurprisingly, the now wingless Maleficent is not too thrilled with this state of affairs and it’s very compelling to see her descend into a dark, malevolent place even as the fairy kingdom she guards reflects her darkening mood and becomes an ominous place that’s more Lord of the Rings than Peter Pan’s Neverland. She rescues a raven and magically transforms him into her human helper Diaval (Sam Riley). It’s Diaval who tells her of the impending christening of Stefan’s baby daughter. Maleficent shows up and, in a fit of rage, curses the beautiful Aurora to her terrible fate on her 16th birthday.
With special effects by Digital Domain and the same production design team as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, it’s no surprise that the visual effects are both terrific and often reminiscent of scenes from those films. In particular, the fairy lands are straight out of Avatar — and even more so in IMAX 3D — and the exterior shots of King Stefan’s castle are very much like the meticulously designed architecture of Alice. In fact, be alert to the very opening sequence where the standard Disney fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s castle visually lead directly into the first shot of the movie. Very ingenious and delightful!
Though a bit heavy on voiceover narration to aid in story continuity, I liked Maleficent far more than I expected. It’s a visual delight, and seeing both Jolie as the wicked Maleficent with her cruel sense of humor and Copley as the mad, obsessed King Stefan who ignores even his own wife’s death is great fun.
Elle Fanning is a beautiful Aurora, but as with all classic fairy tales, the princess is never particularly interesting, just a bubbly airhead who wants to eat dainty foods and play with puppies and kittens. At times she was too vapid, grinning as she identifying Maleficent as her fairy godmother, to the evil woman’s surprise and cruel amusement.
A film like Maleficent is propelled by special effects as much as acting and story, and the special visual effects and costume work by the brilliant multi-Academy Award-winning Rick Baker are splendid. The dragon that shows up later in the film rivals the great Smaug in the Hobbit films, the seamless transitions from computer rendered exteriors to live-action shots were flawless, and the fairy lands both in the beginning when Maleficent is a joyous youngster and later when they’ve become dark and twisted, a complex tangle of thorn trees, are very well done.
The story? Well, it’s a fairy tale, retold for a modern sensibility. The concept of true love ain’t what it used to be, whether it’s Stefan and Maleficent or Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora, and everyone’s either pure (aka simple minded) or obsessed with something or another, whether it’s Maleficent caught up in her revenge against Stefan, or Stefan completely obsessed with her curse and its implications for his beautiful daughter. The simple minded? Princess Aurora, the three pixies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Diaval, and just about everyone else in the film. Maybe that’s a classic archetypal tension after all: stay simple and be happy, or become deep, thoughtful and run the risk of being obsessed.
Maleficent is a terrific entertainment on screen, even with its flaws. It’s well worth seeing, but there are some pretty dark, intense scenes, so just as with the original, be thoughtful before you bring your toddler or young ‘un to the movie theater for this one. But for everyone else, enjoy!