From the moment the first trailer ran, there has been nothing but anticipation for Disney’s Maleficent, or more accurately, for Angelina Jolie’s starring role as one of the most frightening animated villains of all time. This live action take on Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty is driven by masterful animation that showcases the effect of Lucasfilm joining the Disney family, allowing a tale rooted in darkness to live for its other talents—seduction, grandeur and beauty.
The film delivers the kind of magic that plays well in a culture that has become astute to fantasy, whether you are a 10 year-old watching one of the first Disney films you will remember loving for the rest of your life, or in your sixties trying to recall the original Disney take. Maleficent is its own stand alone wonder in a new approach to the Disney muse, a valiant peer to Frozen (2013).
In this take on the legend, Jolie, who also serves as an executive producer on the project, evokes the tenderness and vulnerability of a strong woman, delivering her effortless ability to allow intellect and complexity to drive her character’s intrigue. In this tale, love and rage are born in their own time, within the same hero, negotiating their paths and their carnage. Given that dynamic, a recipe that makes for the best of superhero stories, Maleficent introduces its title character as a child, paralleling her majesty to that which we acquaint with Aurora, played by both Elle Fanning and Jolie’s daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, the Sleeping Beauty. (Jolie's other children, Pax and Zahara, also cameo in the film.)
As the audience falls for a more tender version of the villain--earnest, loving and protective--we finally fall upon the moment when her rage is born. This one moment, a tension with Stephan, played by Sharlto Copley, compasses Maleficent's actions for the rest of the film, leaving Aurora to be a bystander in the life of another. This is now the story of a woman who carries that which she despises and that which she desires on her shoulders, as she takes on the less complex human population. In the end, we know that goodness will win, but the intrigue is in figuring out how and if Maleficent will survive her own rage. Jolie is all the villain audiences have been waiting for, leading a cast that, including Fanning, bows to Jolie's auspicious lead. There is the ensemble and Jolie, and nothing in between.
Writer Linda Woolverton’s approach to the story inevitably alludes to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. Unfortunately, the first 20 minutes of the story skips beats, the part that carries the brunt of retelling. The story starts off a bit shaky, relying on tricks that may play better in a classically animated film. You cannot help but wonder for a while what the story would be if Maguire or Guillermo del Toro had been behind the writing. Enchantment is driven instead by the animation. The creatures and worlds developed by Disney's commanding art, makeup, and animation teams are infectious. The cinematic grandeur allows the audience to forgive the undeveloped conflict between Stephan and Maleficent and fall into the magical setting. And when the character reaches her familiar look, the story picks up and captivates in pace with its creative direction. It only makes sense that Disney developed a companion digital book for viewers to fall further into the story.
Maleficent is amazing to watch, even with its negligible use of 3D. And just as you find yourself lost in its magical forest of cinematography, you cannot help but notice the messages of Disney rescinding its offering of happily ever after as the promises of Prince Charming. The movie also makes good with a world that cannot be simply labeled good or bad. This is Disney for both the Marvel fan and the purist, delivering awe at its finest. There is no better note to start off a summer of mystique and adventure than with Angelina Jolie. In fact, you kind of look forward to a generation of girls who might long to be more Maleficent than good.