The first mark of a true villain is that they don't consider themselves to be villainous. Enter Maleficent, the evil sorceress responsible for putting the deep-sleep curse on Princess Aurora in Disney's Sleeping Beauty (of course, the 1959 animated Disney version is based on the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, first published by Charles Perrault in 1697). It seems that we have gotten the story all wrong. In Maleficent (opening today), we get a different side of the story, as told from Maleficent's point of view.
Indeed, when we first meet Maleficent, we see that her heart was pure. She is a playful and happy fairy living in the enchanted forest of the Moors, where several other magical creatures dwell. Young Maleficent (played by the mesmerizing young actress, Isobelle Molloy) has wings and of course, those iconic horns protruding from her head. When a human boy, Stefan, wanders into the woods, Maleficent more than befriends him...she falls in love with him.
Their love would grow into adulthood, until Stefan's routine visits came to a halt. The nearby kingdom has grown fearful of the magical beasts lurking in the Moors, and on his deathbed, King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), is unsure as to who he should name as his successor. In an attempt to impress the King, a now grown Stefan (Sharlto Copley) plans to use his relationship with Maleficent to get close to and kill her, thinking that the act would make him a shoe-in for the throne. When he does get close, he can't go through with the act. Instead, he drugs her and chops off her wings, bringing them to the King to display his bravery.
A deeply hurt, bitter and betrayed Maleficent decides to get even. When King Stefan has his first child, Princess Aurora, fairies from the Moors, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) arrive at her christening to bestow blessings upon the child and to harbor good will from the Moors. Knotgrass blesses her with unmatched beauty, while Flittle blesses her with unending happiness. Before Thistlewit can bestow her blessing, Maleficent appears. She curses Aurora that on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle's needle and will fall into a deep sleep, one that can only be broken by "true love's kiss." The kicker? Maleficent now believes there is no such thing as true love, therefore damning Aurora to eternal sleep.
Much of that story is known from Sleeping Beauty, but its after the curse that this story takes a turn. We know that King Stefan tries to protect his daughter by burning all the spindles in the kingdom and sending Aurora off in hiding, to live with Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. What we discover in this film, is that Maleficent (and her pet crow, Diaval) is well-aware of Aurora's location and more than that, she plays a very important role in the Princess's upbringing (the grown Princess Aurora is played effectively by Elle Fanning).
Of course, the draw of Maleficent is the performance of Angelina Jolie, who fully inhabits the role. She is damn enchanting to watch. First-time director Robert Stromberg comes from a visual effects background, so this movie is a delight from that point-of-view, if less-effective in others. There is a hollowness to this film and for all of its visual splendor, it seems a bit claustrophobic.
Like the stage play, Wicked, Maleficent is instantly interesting because it takes a tale that we all know and love and spins it on its head. But I'm not sure that I like this watered-down version of one of Disney's all-time villains. What's next? Learning that Scar was actually abused as a cub, given his signature mark with a younger Mufasa bitch-slap? That Ursula battled bulimia? That Belle was actually married to nice man named Gaston, and out of vengeance, invited Gaston to a party at the castle, only to have the Beast murder him so that they could live happily ever after?
No, to me Maleficent is infinitely more interesting when she's a baddie. Things are more interesting when existing on the extremes and painting her as a misunderstood victim takes away any and all flavor that the character had. Maleficent the film, is a celebration of all things vanilla, the sadly marks the beginning of an attempt by Disney to humanize their most feared (re: unmarketable) characters.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Family
Run Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes, Rated PG
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Isobelle Molloy
Directed by Robert Stromberg (feature-film directorial debut)
Opens locally on Friday, May 30, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time