Angelina Jolie stars as the iconic Disney villain Maleficent in a new live-action update of the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. But is the movie a successful retelling of the classic story, or did it fail to live up to the original? Jeffrey Harris checks in with his official review of Disney's Maleficent.
Directed By: Robert Stromberg Written By: Linda Woolverton Runtime: 97 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Maleficent - Angelina Jolie Aurora - Elle Fanning Stefan - Sharlto Copley Diaval - Sam Riley Prince Phillip - Brenton Thwaites Flittle - Lesley Manville Knotgrass - Imelda Staunton Thistletwit - Juno Temple King Henry - Kenneth Cranham Queen Leila - Hannah New Young Maleficent - Ella Purnell Young Stefan - Jackson Bews
Imagine a parallel universe. And in that universe, imagine the character Hannibal Lecter is actually a brilliant, yet possibly eccentric psychiatrist. The cannibal thing? Well he’s not a cannibal at all. The true cannibals and psychopaths were actually the likes of Clarice Starling and Will Graham. They are truly the evil ones, and they've framed Hannibal Lecter who is forced to go on the run because everyone thinks he’s a deranged serial killer who likes to eat rude people’s liver beans with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti. If you can imagine that, then Disney’s Maleficent, a new live-action retelling of their all-time classic 1959 animated feature Sleeping Beauty, is quite similar. While I suppose the idea of a movie exploring the backstory of one of Walt Disney Animation’s greatest villans is interesting, the movie fails to do anything with it. It’s actually a quite dull, boring ride.
The story introduces young Maleficent (Purnell), a young but strong fairy who is seen as the queen and leader of the fairy tale creatures, the Moors. The Moors live in an enchanted forest, neighboring a human kingdom led by the cruel and greedy King Henry (Cranham). In her youth, Maleficent meets the hapless and orphaned thief Stefan (Bews). The two become fast friends and later fall in love. However, Stefan’s lust for power draws him away from Maleficent. As an adult, Stefan (Copley) becomes the servant to the king. After the king tries and fails to destroy the Moors’ homeland, King Henry is mortally wounded by Maleficent. On his deathbed, Henry promises that whoever slays Maleficent and avenges him will be the heir to the throne. Seeing his chance to get a fast track to becoming a monarch, Stefan goes to the forest to visit Maleficent under false pretenses. Still believing she loves Stefan, she lets her guard down before he drugs hers with a drink. Stefan is unable bring himself to kill Maleficent, so Stefan cuts off her wings instead, tricking King Henry and making him believe Stefan killed her. As a result, Stefan becomes king. Now surely, this would plunge the kingdom into war, right? Such a loss would drive a passionate and emotional creature like Maleficent into a violent rage. Maleficent was tricked by the man she thought she loved. He came into her homeland and drugged her and cut off her precious wings. There will be hell to pay, right? Well…Maleficent gets so angry…she screams. She cries. She turns a twig into her famous staff, and she starts wearing black tunics. Basically, she goes emo. She also adopts a wayward crow, Diaval (Riley) instead of Diablo, and gives him the ability to transform into a human man.
Well, Maleficent finally decides to make a move after King Stefan and Queen Leila (New) have a baby, Princess Aurora. Maleficent decides to put the famous curse upon Aurora. But this time, Maleficent is the one who states the clause that true love’s first kiss can break the spell. And of course, Maleficent does not believe in such a thing, since she was betrayed by the man who claimed he gave her “true love’s first kiss.” King Stefan puts Aurora under the care of the three fairies Knotgrass (Staunton), Flittle (Manville), and Thistletwit (Temple). He mounts an offensive to put down the Moors’ kingdom, but Maleficent guards it with an impenetrable wall of thorns. Since iron is the only substance that can harm a fairy, he has his iron workers spend 16 years tricking out his castle with an iron trap for Maleficent. For the next 16 years, Maleficent watches over Aurora and the fairies. She protects Aurora from harm because the fairies are nitwits and have no idea how to rear a child. Diaval helps take care of Aurora as well and becomes her playmate. Eventually, Aurora becomes curious and tries to explore the enchanted forest of the Moors. Soon, Maleficent becomes charmed by Aurora’s kindness and innocence. She grows quite fond of the princess, but the curse is too powerful to undo. Perhaps the wayward Prince Phillip (Thwaites), who has a chance meeting with Aurora, could be the key to true love’s first kiss. Maleficent’s new goal is to save Aurora, but it might be too late because of the curse.
In all fairness, the movie looks really good. First-time director Robert Stromberg comes from a background of production design and visual effects work for the likes of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, and it clearly shows. Visually, Maleficent is a very rich, colorful, and imaginative movie. However, substance and story is ultimately where the movie is lacking.
Jolie is good as Maleficent, but her iteration is all bark with no bite. Her makeup work by the amazing Rick Baker is great, but as a character she’s quite boring. What I like about Maleficent as a character is that she’s such a good, dastardly villain. In Sleeping Beauty, she’s the perfect foil to the story. Here, she’s completely the heroin. She does not really do anything bad. She’s pretty much a cupcake. After Maleficent meets Aurora, she’s a complete puppy dog. Sure, she put a curse on Aurora; but rather than the fairies coming up with a solution, Maleficent decides to give the curse a way to be broken. One is loathe to even call Maleficent an antihero here. She’s a hero without any edge. So, it’s not really all that fun to watch Jolie playing a rather placid and friendly Maleficent. Even when she tries to scare or insult Aurora, it’s completely played for laughs.
Copley’s Stefan is a one-dimensional, barking bad guy. At first, the character begins like it could have an interesting arc, but the plot descends into making Stefan the out and out villain of the story. Copley’s performance is brought down by his constant snarling and almost indiscernible dialogue through a thick, Scottish-sounding accent. But making Stefan a one-dimensional and uncomplicated villain is just as disappointing as making him the target of Maleficent’s spurned lover.
The story never really addresses any type of conflict between Maleficent and the fairy trio. At the beginning, the fairy trio appears to be Maleficent’s subjects and the fairies answer to her. However, later, they are palling it up with King Stefan at Aurora’s christening. None of this is explained. The fairies seem to hold no ill will against Stefan for mutilating their queen. Maleficent does nothing in retaliation to the fairy trio, other than playing some juvenile pranks on them for laughs. The fairies just appear to be complete and utter, incompetent nincompoops rather than the wise and compassionate creatures they are in the original animated movie. Diaval and Maleficent are the ones who truly watch over, take care of, and raise Aurora. The movie has a rather predictable bait and switch that was taken right out of another recent Disney animated hit.
The 411: In the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is an awesome villain you love to hate. In Maleficent, the character is de-fanged and becomes a heroin you are supposed to love to love, and that’s just not as exciting. Rather than an interesting, fun, and edgy dark fantasy tale, the film is a fairly unimaginative alternate retelling, where many of the roles in the story are reversed from the 1959 classic. Aside from that, the movie is very well shot and looks great. Young girls and teens will probably love Jolie and the way the story is executed. So with that in mind, the movie could be worth seeing for a particular demographic. But for the fervent fans of Sleeping Beauty, it’s a bit of a boring experience.