"Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!" ---Cate Blanchett: "The Fellowship of the Ring".
Those of you who saw the 1959 Disney animated version of "Sleeping Beauty" experienced one of those rare moments in film. With the establishment of the character of Maleficent (voiced with honey-dipped menace by Eleanor Audley), the Disney studio accomplished the enviable by creating one of the truly memorable villains. Regal . . . cultured . . . as sinister as a cancer . . . and WOW could she make an entrance! Maleficent was a true original of Evil. She could've had Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West over for brioche and coffee. Doctor Doom would've been sending her lacy valentines. She would've had Hannibal Lecter on a leash and drinking out of a doggy dish, and she would've easily eaten Darth Vader's lunch. A class act.
Any actress worth the name would've given their eyeteeth for a shot at such a role (I could almost imagine Bette Davis' fancy being tickled). But Angelina Jolie was in the fast track for it . . .
And well, what can I say? If you go see "Maleficent" then go for Jolie's performance. Robert Stromberg's directorial debut is a nice enough effort, and there are some interesting touches to the film (more on them later). But "Maleficent" is clearly Jolie's show from the word go. She dominates the screen, radiating the sort of smiling menace you hope you never have to face and mixing it with a variety of quixotic expressions which carry subtleties that have to be carefully peeled away, like the petals of an artichoke. You can never quite read her clearly, but she remains a most fascinating book.
Since revisionism is rampant everywhere else, then it makes perfect sense that classic fairy tales end up in the mix. Any day now I expect to hear about a production in the works where Goldilocks is an escaped member of Shining Path on the lam from Homeland Security. In the case of "Maleficent", though, the Sleeping Beauty storyline (and especially the Disney version) was treated with a light hand. For this I credit Linda Woolverton, who wrote the screenplay (one writer. See? One writer!). Woolverton already had a great deal of experience writing several Disney films, so she knew the envelope wherein she worked. She also apparently had sense enough to comprehend she was dealing with one of the thoroughbreds in Disney's stable of characters.
What we end up with, then, is a re-telling of "Sleeping Beauty", but from the perspective of Maleficent. And Woolverton weaves a rather complicated tale. I was almost frowning at parts of it until I realized I had seen the same thing often enough in Japanese anime series: the habit of a character gradually changing in midstream from hero to villain (or vice-versa). In the 1959 film (as with practically all of Disney's fairy tales) everything was black and white. With "Maleficent" we get a continuous series of shifting greys. Everything hinges on the emotional development of the titular character, and Woolverton's screenplay (along with Jolie's acting) keeps the balls in the air. Yes, yes . . . some parts of the plot are telegraphed way the heck in advance. But they can be fun to watch if you keep an open mind. At its most basic, "Maleficent" is a story of what happens when a love affair goes sour. Branching out from that, however, is an account of wrongs being made, and efforts to correct them. The result is yet another basic truth: Love is never easy.
One constant about the 1959 film was that, with the exception of the very central characters, everyone else was even more two dimensional than one would come to expect in an animated film. King Stefan, for example, was a tall and rather dignified sort of clot-poll, and that was about all there was to him. His role is considerably fleshed out in "Maleficent" by Sharlto Copley (who, among other things, is set to star in the interesting-sounding "Chappie" coming out next year).
It's been said that it takes a very good actor to play someone without any talent. I have a variant of this which states that it takes a very good actor to portray a total incompetent. Whereas the character of Stefan starts out promisingly enough, under Copley's aegis he soon grows into perhaps the most ineffectual ruler ever to grace a movie since Michael Jayston in "Nicholas and Alexandra". Everything Copley's Stefan does goes South in a rather royal way, and one can almost feel sorry for him if it weren't for the fact that he wasn't trying to muck things up further than they were. To be certain it's not a fantastic performance, but it provides Jolie with some necessary props from which to work with.
Elle Fanning has the role of Aurora, and she's grown up rather nicely. I briefly marveled at how easily she managed to slip into the role of a live-action Disney heroine, and then I recalled how she had been the voice of Mei in the 2005 Disney translation of Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro". This made everything appropriate as, if Disney and Jolie weren't handling "Maleficent", then Miyazaki would've been the next best choice. And only a Miyazaki heroine would be suitable for the role of Sleeping Beauty. Fanning plays the role as an innocent without being treacly, firmly fulfilling the charms which the fairies blessed her with at birth.
(Speaking of Sleeping Beauty's birth, I give the "Maleficent" crew points for trying to work the christening scene as closely as possible to the way it was played back in 1959. Unfortunately . . . and this is admittedly a minor "unfortunately" . . . Jolie's entrance wasn't as dramatic as that of her animated forebear.)
And speaking of fairies who blessed the infant Aurora, another reason to see "Maleficent" is to catch the trio of Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Leslie Manville as the three "pixies" who raise Aurora in the forest. There were times when the 1959 film had to be followed closely, and there were times when the original was open to interpretation, and Staunton, Temple and Manville wisely decided not to make a word-for-word replay of the roles voiced by Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy. They also don't play their roles for the sake of slapstick and, as a result, almost manage to steal some scenes from Jolie (no small trick). This level of give-and-take is nearly matched by Sam Riley as the human aspect of the raven that Jolie employs as a spy (but who acts closer to Jiminy Cricket than henchman . . . or henchbird rather . . . and sometimes delivers some nice comebacks to Jolie).
Oh yes, we also have television actor Brenton Thwaites as Prince Philip, but don't get all excited. He hardly has ten minutes of useful screen time (including a nice bit where the pixies are trying to get him to kiss the sleeping Aurora), and for all the presence he delivered he might as well have been a postage stamp.
I am not one of those people who lie on his back with his paws in the air every time a piece of Disney film music is played. Having said that, I was glad to hear that the soundtrack for "Maleficent" was courtesy not of the usual crew of Disney schlockmeisters, but of award-winning composer James Newton Howard. The only concession to the 1959 film is an EXTREMELY NICE rendition of "Once Upon a Dream" sung by Lana Del Rey. This pleased me to no end as it eliminated the need for a repeat performance of the second worst song ever recorded for a Disney film: the "Wine Drinking Song" ("Scumps!").
"Maleficent" is, by no means a---
(Oh, very well. The worst song ever recorded for a Disney film was "A Whale of a Tale" which was shoehorned, for God only knows what reason, into 1954's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". Otherwise known as "Uncle Mikey Always Fast Forwards Through That Scene".)
(And that's Mister Film Snob to you!)
"Maleficent" is, by no means, a great film, or even a great fantasy film. Robert Stromberg did his level best, to be sure. But the film's one true strength lies in the performance of Angelina Jolie as the title character. Her work may not be Oscar-calibre, but one can't deny that she managed to pull off the role through sheer force of will.
She gives good Evil!