If anyone ever wants a picture of "perfect casting" to stick next to dictionary definitions, you probably can think of Angelina Jolie after her very memorable turn as the titular dark fairy Maleficent from Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty animated movie. Whilst she does look the part, the rest of the reimagined live action adaptation struggles for meaning as it enters the crowded fantasy market in the middle of a busy summer blockbuster season.
So, Maleficent (Jolie, The Tourist) it turns out was never always evil. She was once charged as the winged protector of the mystical land of the Moors. A haven for weird and wonderful creatures and other fairies, Maleficent protected her kingdom from the greed and corruption of the neighbouring kingdom of men until one day she fell in love with a young man Stefan. Stefan (Sharlto Copley, Elysium) later betrays Maleficent and becomes the King and later has a daughter, Aurora. Maleficent calls on darker powers and has a shapeshifting raven (Sam Riley, Control) for company whilst she curses Aurora as a baby, but upon meeting her as a young woman (Elle Fanning, We Bought A Zoo), Maleficent shows regret for what she's done.
The creative success of this film lives and dies on whether Jolie does a good job and beyond as the iconic Disney villain which she very much does. When she's in the traditional black and dark coloured garb, she really does suit the look of the fairy with her pouty, bright red lips and CGI enhanced cheeks creating a very pointed but lasting face. Jolie does a great job balancing all the various faces of Maleficent from young lover to scorned and young to evil sorceress supreme to caring protector. Whilst some of these aspects to the character are not the wisest for a character like Maleficent to display, I will not fault Jolie's work at playing an anti-hero version of a superb villain right down to a tee. Frightening at times and plays up the comedy in all the right places, it's one of the best female performances of the year.
The rest of the cast is but a foil but there's noone terrible either. Copley is wasted a touch as a Scottish accented king but he plays up to the obsessed and mental aspects quite well. The scene where he requests his ironsmith to get his workers up at 2am to start work is wonderfully unsettling. Fanning is alright as a young princess who is so innocent and pure to the core. Riley has some decent material as the honor bound raven shapeshifter and shows off his talent. As child orientated comic relief, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple & Lesley Manville as the colour coded fairy godmothers are okay enough too but yikes on their motion capture CGI mini versions!
The problem of Maleficent is there's not really much reason for this film to exist. Yeah, Jolie is great and all but considering what it offers to do in revealing Maleficent's previously unknown history, there simply isn't anything interesting and/or new here. Maleficent was and still is one of the iconic Disney villains. Do I really want to know why she's evil? Not really, but if it's good enough then I don't mind... oh she got jilted by a man... has her wings stolen... and she just decides to act dark just cause. Great. Absolutely wonderful filling in the blanks for back story that wasn't needed. There's no good reason Why given that Maleficent decides to go to the dark side of fairy magic we are familiar with from Sleeping Beauty or why she wears the iconic black costume. For a film that was meant to answer these questions, you'll feel very shortchanged. In fact, tonnes of additional unnecessary baggage are given just to reinvent her. Oh she had wings... okay. And that's used as an unneeded plot device. in fact, if you're adding parts to a pre-established character, only to then take them away for drama, there's no reason for it to be in your movie whatsoever. Oh there's a whole plot point added in about fairies feeling pain when touching iron, yet Maleficent is totally fine in the last battle sequences facing off with iron wielding knights after walking through a room filled with iron spikes and then being caught underneath an iron net. Talk about pointlessness and varying degrees of effectiveness.
She doesn't really do anything finitely evil in this version either. Like I said, she just decides to act a bit more darker after her wings were carted away by Stefan, so she grows a throne of thorns in the pretty fairy kingdom land she's sworn to protect and the various cute creatures have sad expressions on their faces and start bowing to her... ummm, why guys? She's just strolling around and they're automatically kneeling for no reason. She hasn't hurt any of them nor would she as Maleficent is the protector of the Moors - that won't be jeopardised. She shows regret on the curse she places on Aurora pretty much straight away and attempts to remove it. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that Disney has done a grade-A neutering job on one of it's best villains. Not quite the same, but I feel there's a fear that villains aren't that popular in Hollywood these days which I do not get at all. What's the point in having your awesome looking, imposing, marketable femme fatale lose all effectiveness by showing her human side and taking part in a comedy mud slinging match with a troll creature?
If this was an attempt instead to turn Sleeping Beauty from it's fairytale pages into a project that could compete with the Lord Of The Rings and Games Of Thrones fantasy juggernauts of today, mission half accomplished. Whilst you do get a whiff of having seen most if not all elements before from other fantasy and fairytale movies, there's enough medieval activities to appease with castles, enchanted lands and overgrown thorn forests all over the show. All the CGI's decent looking but there's not much effort to hide the constant amounts of green screen on top of there being nothing real to focus on. Literally everything is made from computers in terms of sets and creatures and it's damn distracting. The comedy's not too bad either, albeit aimed very much at the kiddies and there's some jokes and pauses for comedic effect that sink like a stone.
The 411: A very safe retconning by Disney for... well I still don't know the reason why. It'll get the fans in but even they will be a bit "ho-hum" after proceedings are done. Jolie is well worth watching in this pointless reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty which will satisfy fantasy fans but in the long term Maleficent will retire to a deep sleep from our consciousness. Not essential and neutering the titular character's effectiveness. Bad move.