Be she known as the “evil fairy” who casts a spell on the infant princess Aurora dooming her to die when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel in Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant or in the Brothers Grimm Dornröschen (Little Briar Rose), or known as the mightiest and most beloved of all the Disney villains, MALEFICENT is a force to be reckoned with. And as beloved as Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty is, making MALEFICENT a household name for new generations and generations to come, nothing has prepared us for the majesty and grandeur of Disney’s new live-action MALEFICENT. Magical. Mesmerizing. Masterful.
With script by Linda Woolverton and John Lee Hancock, and led by animator/artist/ production designer/VFX legend Robert Stromberg who makes his directorial debut (finally!), Angelina Jolie IS MALEFICENT. Nobody does fairy tales better than Disney and thanks to some great imagination and exquisite storytelling that adds a new twist to classic legend and lore, brought to life with breathtaking visuals that stun, immerse, dazzle with heart-stopping beauty and emotion, infused with an indelible powerhouse performance by Angelina Jolie, it won’t take long before MALEFICENT wraps you in the most magical of spells.
As the warm intonations of our narrator set the stage, we begin. “Let us tell an old story anew.” In this time and place there are two kingdoms; that of the humans and that of the moors. Ruled by King Henry, the human world has no tolerance for that of the moors, a land of enchantment where fairies flit and creatures of all shapes and sizes thrive in peace and harmony among Mother Nature’s beauteous bounty. An unwritten agreement deems that “never the twains shall meet”. While Henry protects and cares for his world and his people, a young fairy named MALEFICENT does the same for the moors. Kind, compassionate and fiercely protective of the moors, the winged MALEFICENT is filled with life and love, a love that soon extends to a young human boy named Stefan.
Initially meeting out of childlike curiosity, the two quickly become friends and Stefan sneaks into the moors to visit Maleficent while she comes to the fringes of the two worlds to meet with him. Over time, their friendship blossoms into love. But then, as first loves do, they fade and each goes their separate way. Only MALEFICENT’s love doesn’t fade and she pines for Stefan. Making life even more difficult, King Henry decides to attack the moors and claim them for himself. Henry is badly injured in the battle and on his death bed, now seeks a successor. Stefan, nothing more than a poor devoted servant to the King, desperately wants to be named successor and have all of Henry’s power and wealth, but how to attain it? And then the answer to his problem arrives. King Henry wants revenge on MALEFICENT.
Seeing Henry’s ravings as a way for him to secure the crown, Stefan returns to the moors and MALEFICENT. Under guise of true love, Stefan tricks MALEFICENT, committing the ultimate betrayal, turning her once loving heart into not just stone, but pure evil. Set on revenge for what Stefan has done to her, and to protect the moors which he has vowed to destroy now that he has his crown, MALEFICENT bides her time waiting for the perfect moment to strike. And strike she does. At the christening of King Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora, MALEFICENT appears, casting a spell dooming Aurora to fall into a deep sleep with the pricking of her finger on a spinning wheel before the sun sets on her 16th birthday. Of course, the only way to break the curse is by a true love’s kiss.
Determined to keep his daughter safe, Stefan sends her into hiding deep in the woods where she will be raised by three fairies - Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistlewit - until the sun sets on her 16th birthday. But just how hidden can you be from MALEFICENT?
No one could play MALEFICENT but for Angelina Jolie. She embodies the very essence of the character, physically and emotionally. Regal yet maternal. Hurt and hateful yet loving and forgiving. Jolie lets us see the emotional battle of light and dark within MALEFICENT using facial expressiveness, nuanced movements and vocal inflection. Making her features and expressions more striking is a light use of prosthetics to heighten cheekbones and sharpen the nose. A delicate and commanding dance. Her inherent statuesque nature fuels the character through her striding walk, the expansiveness of open arms and wings. Wonderful physicality to the character through minimal yet deliberate movement. But then look at her hands. Jolie makes the most expressive use of her hands. She is able to bring a rigidity to her long slender fingers with just the most incremental movements that are perfect for VFX to come in and dazzle us with pixie dust, not to mention energy streams. Extremely powerful is the rage she conveys with her facial expressions in battle sequences. Wow! (Seeing this, I wouldn't want to be one of Jolie’s kids if I’d been bad!)
Speaking of Jolie and her kids, a serendipitous casting is Vivienne Jolie-Pitt as the young Aurora. This is a situation that benefits by the mother-daughter casting immensely as a key scene with MALEFICENT and the "Beastie" as she calls the child, solidifies not only the conflict of light and dark within MALEFICENT, but the true nature of her feelings towards Aurora. That one scene - especially the "Up, Up" from Aurora to MALEFICENT - is a pivotal moment in time that shifts the story and the film, as well as our hearts. The innocence and purity that Vivienne brings to the screen is almost angelic. So touching seeing the mother-daughter on camera together, it made my heart swell and smile.
Key to the darkness that Jolie brings to MALEFICENT is finding an actress with a lightness as balance to play Aurora. For director, Robert Stromberg, Elle Fanning was the only choice. “She exuded life and light. . .this light to contrast with the dark - and then to see how those cross-pollinate. That’s the interesting concoction that you have to play with. But it was really about you could feel her spirit in the room and that’s what we wanted. And she’s beautiful.”
Thanks to the creativity with the storytelling, another heart shines that helps propel the story and softens the harder edges of MALEFICENT - Diaval, raven turned human turned wolf turned dragon depending on MALEFICENT’s mood. Sam Riley brings emotional nuance to the character, much of which is through his eyes and their expressiveness and movement. Thankfully, that same expressiveness is carried through to Diaval the Crow. You completely suspend disbelief when it comes to Diaval and the shape-shifting that MALEFICENT performs on him. Seamless. And this is a side of Riley that we haven't seen. He gives Diaval a caring kindness with a touch of humor that is tender and sweet. Again, kudos to make-up and attention to detail as scarring on the face and neck appear, while Riley’s human chest becomes that of an exo-skeleton.
Interesting is Sharlto Copley's Stefan. Such anger, such darkness, such slovenly disgust for life. Digging deep into his self-proclaimed “happy persona”, Copley delivers an intense hatred that he maintains and even strengthens, serving as a perfect counter to MALEFICENT's softer moments.
Adorable are Juno Temple, Lesley Manville and Imelda Staunton as our fairies, particularly Temple. Knowing her persona in real life, one does think of her as a happy flitting fairy! Nice casting with Staunton who is no stranger to the ways of magic thanks to Hogwarts and Harry Potter!
Linda Woolverton and John Lee Hancock have turned a classic on its ear (or curved horns) with a loving and maternal spin. Long my favorite villainess, it has been my contention since seeing Sleeping Beauty as a small child that MALEFICENT was really a decent person and just not appreciated. It is with childish delight that I get to see my childhood visions now brought to life by others who obviously thought the same thing. MALEFICENT's backstory is as painful and is it beautiful. Heartbreak is not something that Disney often tackles. Love, yes. But heartbreak, no. Woolverton and Hancock now give us heartbreak, something that will resonate with all and which is as easily at home in the real world in which we live as in the fantasy world of fairy tales. We sympathize. We empathize. We care about MALEFICENT. And the more we care about and understand MALEFICENT, the darker Stefan becomes with tables turning and the more we also see the old adage of "two sides to very coin" unfold. Director Stromberg then gives us powerful visuals that succinctly show how anger and vitriol look if the emotions are given three-dimensional color and dimension. The metaphor of emotion through visuals is extremely well executed, visceral and evocative.
I seriously doubt that any director other than Robert Stromberg (even a visualist like Tim Burton) could have stepped in and brought MALEFICENT to life with such incredible detail, depth and texture, creating a tonal bandwidth visually and with story that finds the perfect balance and discussion of good versus evil, love versus hate. With his background in VFX, production design, art direction and even old school matte painting, Stromberg puts every bit of skill and every tool in his vast toolbox of knowledge to use in the design of MALEFICENT, particularly with the creation of the moors. Then toss in Dean Semler's lighting and lensing and the moors in particular is pure ethereal beauty with a delicacy of light and life even when shrouded in the inky darkness of a heartbroken MALEFICENT. A delicate emotional and tonal balance that mirrors the delicacy of fairy spells.
Making Semler the perfect cinematographer for Stromberg is Semler’s “old school thinking and knowledge of lighting [which he ] applies to the newer equipment and digital photography. . .he understands the use of light, how that can emotionally affect the film.” For Stromberg and Semler, and as they show us beautifully in MALEFICENT, “You follow an emotional journey of discovery in the environment the same way the character does. In this movie we start with a very happy, bright place and the whole background, the whole world shifts with MALEFICENT’s journey and her emotional journey through this world. We go darker when she’s dark and then by the end of the movie we come back up and it’s come full circle. . .It’s important in the way [Semler] lights things to create different emotions that way and he understands that.” Notable is his framing which goes wide within the happy carefree days in the moors, allowing us to feel a part of the magical world before us. Camera goes tight to mid as emotions intensify. Nice palette of blacks come into play within Stefan’s castle as well as the thorn wall, creating a sense of negative space without physically being such. Interesting and effective perspective the end result of which is masterful.
Production designers Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole create dueling worlds that meet in the middle with as much attention to the brick, mortar and iron design of Stefan's castle as to the moors. There are visual touchstones that incorporate the collective consciousness of multiple generations harkening to the literary world of the Brothers Grimm and their original story, the indelible visuals of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" yet opens up a pantheon of delights with new imagery, new mythology - all of which is thanks to this wonderful new story. Exciting for Stromberg and company was going into the Disney archives, back to the original 1959 drawings by Eyvind Earle who designed the first Sleeping Beauty. With Earle’s drawings as a starting point, Stromberg then saw that “it was a bit distracting for the story we were trying to tell but it was important for me to keep the essence of Eyvind Earle’s design in the movie; sort of a photo-real version. . . There’s definitely an important conscious attempt to capture the essence of that.” Another huge influencer that can be seen particularly in the moors and in aerial sequences comes from neo-classical artists like Maxfield Parrish.
Shot at Pinewood Studios, the filmmakers were able to build many of the physical sets, some 40 in all, allowing for more visual and emotional texture. One of the things that makes Stromberg the perfect director for MALEFICENT is his extensive skill set, giving him “an understanding of what needed to be built and what needed to be CGI’d. . .I was able to sit down with the script and determine what needed to be built. I thought it was really important for some of the major scenes that the actors be able to physically touch things and to feel the emotion of real light lighting the set, there’s something powerful - that’s why the christening scene was an entire set because we wanted to feel. That’s the center of the movie. We wanted everybody to feel the energy of what it would be like to be there.”
And when it comes to the christening scene, break out your Disney storybooks, break out the old VHS tapes and DVD’s of Sleeping Beauty. According to Stromberg, “We filmed the christening scene word for word verbatim except for a couple small changes from the Disney classic version. It’s intentional because we now have all this back story and when we get up to that point in the movie, we wanted the fans to go, ‘Oh, okay. I see that’s the character and now I know why she is that way.’ Did we change some things? Yes, we did. We threw some curve balls but there was always a conscious effort to think about the fan base.”
Hand in hand with production design is the meticulous detail to the actual character of MALEFICENT through costume and make-up. Fingernails are thick with a slightly yellow tint to them, sharpened to a talon-like point. Her numerous "crowns" have details sometimes of snakeskin, other times crocodile, other times silken glossy feathers, other times, a furry touch. Each design fits the emotion of a particular scene. As MALEFICENT grows ever darker and hurt, costume goes from muted browns and greens of the woodland to various shades of black, intensifying in hue with emotion and fabrication. Similarly, when touched by Aurora and as they grow closer, the neckline opens up more, the clothing is a bit looser/freer, colors soften until the final scene and MALEFICENT is back to earthy browns, tinged with sunlit gold. Fabulous, fabulous work.
What would a Disney movie be without a score. Beautifully lyrical and for the bulk of the film very subtle (except for the soaring and sailing through the moors and skies), James Newton Howard's score feels like a cloud floating with the film, wafting alongside, never leading it. Over the final credits however, the score is vibrant and tremendous, capturing all of the emotions and beats of the film that just unfolded.
To paraphrase the haunting signature lyric of the Sleeping Beauty theme, we walked with her once upon a dream and now we know that visions are seldom all they seem. MALEFICENT, a new vision in filmmaking that will make new dreams for generations to come.
MALEFICENT is magnificent.
Directed by Robert Stromberg
Written by Linda Woolverton and John Lee Hancock
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt