Revisionist storytelling of familiar childhood fairy tales and their well known characters on the big screen has in recent years become the new genre for Hollywood looking for the next big thing.
Audiences have been subject to viewing darker or loopier takes on everything from The Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland and Hansel and Gretel, to creating even more bizarre extracurricular activities for actual historic figures including former presidents.
Anyone remember seeing 2012's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" ?
The primary gimmick being to take the main character and/or storyline that's been more or less set in stone over the decades and add a new, presumably fresh, backstory for the characters. In many cases, it's to reveal, in more detail, how they came to be the weird or mostly evil persona we were first introduced to in their written form or later cinematic incarnations.
However, usually these attempts at revisionism and psychological analysis of these familiar, often one-dimensional characters either fall short or abysmally fail, becoming laughably ludicrous in their diversion from the original source material.
However, "Maleficent", mostly succeeds in striving to add more depth and nuance to Disney's 1959 animated film "Sleeping Beauty". It presents the film in live action form and, almost entirely, from the perspective of the original's evil sorceress that places a curse on the newborn Princess Aurora.
It's a concept that has much promise, and to a great extent entertains, despite some narrative flaws; thanks almost entirely to the talent and stunning screen presence of its star Angelina Jolie, who seems to have been born to play such a juicy ( and perhaps ) villainous role.
Unlike "Sleeping Beauty" where the character of Maleficent is simply presented to be an evil and vengeful adult and nothing more; here she has a more innocent beginning. Maleficent is first seen as a young spritely fairy, optimistic and happy in her childhood in a typical Disney-esque fairyland. Her predominant joy is frolicking with her fairytale companions and thrillingly soaring through the skies via the majestic prized wings she was born with.
When young Maleficent encounters a young human boy who has inadvertently wandered into her domain, she befriends him. That friendship evolves into something more deeply romantic as the years evolve and they mature. A pivotal moment for the couple is when they share a kiss on Maleficent's sixteenth birthday. It is, for Maleficent, her first "true love's kiss" and an experience that will have a strong influence on familiar events to follow.
Eventually, the couple reaches adulthood, and the two have gone separate paths. Maleficent becomes the strong and powerful, yet still pure-hearted guardian of her fairyland domain against the encroachment of the nearby King's desire to conquer it for it's rich, bejeweled resources.
Her former love, Stephen ( Sharlto Copley ) has become one of the king's close henchmen and fiercely ambitious to one day gain the crown. When the king moves to attack Maleficent's homeland, she successfully routs their forces aided by her formidable other-worldly friends and her own all-powerful wings.
Stephen later approaches Maleficent under the pretense of warning her of the danger she faces from the king. Instead, after deceptively rekindling her trust and her former love for him, Stephen betrays her in a horrific way that goes far beyond mere heartbreak.
His betrayal eventually ensures that he becomes the new king. Upon the birth of his daughter Aurora, a now embittered and vengeful Maleficent appears, staged exactly as in the 1959 animated film, to place a curse on the baby. As many already know, the curse is for young Aurora to prick her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday and fall into an unshakable, endless sleep.
In a vengeance born of Stephen's betrayal of Maleficent's own personal romantic milestone of her youth; the only way Aurora can be roused from this state is for her to be awakened by someone's "true love's kiss". It is an emotion that the embittered and cynical Maleficent now believes no longer exists. To protect Aurora, Stephen sends the infant princess into the remote and solitary woods with three fairies to watch over her until her fateful teenage birthday; plus a day after to avoid falling victim to Maleficent's curse.
However, it is here where the story diverts from the original "Sleeping Beauty" narrative, as Maleficent is ever present nearby watching Aurora grow. Aided by a crow named Diaval ( Sam Riley ) who she constantly changes into human and other animal forms for her purposes; Maleficent makes sure Aurora ( Elle Fanning ) is unharmed so that she lives safely until that pivotal birthday to meet her cursed fate as planned.
To divulge more about the story as it evolves from here would be a spoiler to the key elements of this reinvention of Maleficent. Suffice to say, what makes this film worth the effort is the remarkable abilities of Angelina Jolie. She is truly magnificent in the role of Maleficent; a stunning visual force on screen that transcends a sometimes slow narrative that has some flaws in terms of pacing and exposition.
This is a role Jolie truly seems to relish tackling and she does so with wonderfully entertaining aplomb. There are some devilishly delicious moments early on where Jolie as Maleficent basks in her on-screen villainy demanding King Stephen bow before her and then sneers with gusto, "I like you begging… do it again!"
One of the film's more memorable moments occurs even earlier, when Maleficent is betrayed and violated by her former love in a fashion; the result of which is heartbreaking to observe. The story could have easily, and misguidedly, fallen on a sexist trope in which she becomes an embittered woman whose love was simply spurned and discarded. Unlike the Wicked Witch of the West played by Mila Kunis in "Oz, The Great and Powerful", Maleficent's dark side doesn't reveal itself simply because some guy has wronged her romantically.
Instead, Stephen's act of betrayal goes deeper by destroying more than her romantic idealism; he destroys the one thing that gave her true joy, freedom and personal individuality. He doesn't just break her heart; he physically robs her of her identity.
It's upon this discovery that Jolie as Maleficent cries a devastating wail of despair and loss that one cannot help but empathize, and perhaps understand, why she becomes so devastatingly different and vengeful. It's a riveting moment of acting that elevates this film above simply being a live action fairy tale redux. There is real pain and pathos for this woman.
Jolie also infuses her Maleficent with moments of dark dry humor and sarcasm with a skillful delivery that, coupled with her stunning beauty and costuming, makes her regal presence on screen a delight to watch. Jolie also takes the character into a direction that avoids the expected and easy play of being merely the one-dimensional villainess presented in the animated original. This Maleficent has layers that makes her quest for vengeance more than simply evil for the sake of being evil. Beneath the surface villainy and cruelty is a hurt and tormented soul that still has some humanity buried deep within.
However, despite Jolie's wonderful performance, the screenplay does have its shortcomings. The story could have spent a bit more time developing the other characters and their relationships within the film. Sharlto's ambitious Stephen seems to jump quickly from idealistic young man to a delusional obsessed and evil king by the third act; without much chance to see how these changes come about in a coherent fashion.
Elle Fanning's is radiant as the maturing and naive Princess Aurora. However again, her evolving relationship with Maleficent might have benefited from a bit more substantive detailing and opportunities to see it grow organically.
Director Robert Stromberg presents a visually stunning film that is beautiful in its shot composition, colors and art direction. Visually, this live action film is perhaps one of the best adaptations of an animated feature ever. The CGI effects are impressively done and entertaining. The makeup, costuming and presentation of Maleficent herself, combined with Jolie's acting skills, make her the literal embodiment of the villainess from the original animated film. Moreover, while most 3-D films are a complete waste of time and money for audiences, often at the expense of the film's on-screen vibrancy and color; "Maleficent" is one of those rare films who's sequences are often enhanced by the 3-D experience.
Though, viewing the film in regular 2-D will be equally thrilling, if not more so for some.
"Maleficent" the film, like the title character herself, is flawed in parts of its execution. To be sure, there are small script deficiencies that could have made this effort more enriched. However, it is Angelina Jolie's tour de force performance and genuine enthusiasm that she brings to the role that makes "Maleficent" an entertaining delight.
It's been almost four years since Jolie graced the big screen since 2010's disappointing "The Tourist" sharing the screen with Johnny Depp. With "Maleficent", Jolie is the undeniable centerpiece of the film in a role that she alone makes spellbinding and magically memorable.
Angelina Jolie has made me almost forget the 1959 original "Sleeping Beauty" film… and given us a new Maleficent worth embracing for the ages.
Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. - Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.