In recent years, Disney has enjoyed twisting-up some of the all-time classics, including the Sam Raimi”Wizard” prequel “Oz: The Great and Powerful”, and the behind the scenes story of the Mouse House’s own beloved “Mary Poppins” – “Saving Mr. Banks”. And this trend will continue next year with live-action remakes of animated treasures “Cinderella”and “The Jungle Book”.
What makes “Maleficent” successful is that the multiple risks taken by feature-film debut director Robert Stromberg (who won two Art Direction Oscars) and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who adapts from the 1959 Disney animated film, as well as the Grimm’s Fairy Tale and original French stories) all pay off. The first and biggest: casting Angelina Jolie to play Maleficent, one of Disney’s all-time greatest villains. Jolie must convince everyone who thought they knew this character that Maleficent isn’t so evil after all.
The film is divided in half between prequel and “Sleeping Beauty” material. As a young girl, Maleficent lives amongst wondrous creatures in The Moors, a mystical land outside of a kingdom. She’s a kind and protective fairy with horns and giant wings. She meets a human boy named Stefan and the two fall in love. But years later the relationship takes a dark turn and Maleficent becomes angry and bitter towards all humans, especially Stefan, who later becomes king. Once young Aurora is born, Maleficent casts that famous “Pricks her finger on her 16th Birthday and falls into a sleep-like death” spell, as an act of revenge. But how far will she go to make Sleeping Beauty’s life all but a dream?
“Maleficent” starts slowly and a little dry, but as the story builds so does the interest level. The script is simple, with a slightly lighter edge that I expected, and is filled with surprises. At one point the audience at the screening I attended gasped out loud because they couldn’t believe what just happened. This is not your grandmother’s “Sleeping Beauty”.
After the initial set-up, “Maleficent” gives the majority of screen time to Jolie. This is essentially a character study of a troubled, lonely, and heartbroken woman, with a lot of regret. Jolie’s performance ranges from playful and mischievous to raw and emotional. She also serves as one of the Executive Producers, and likely suggested using one of her own daughters in a brief scene as the 5-year-old Aurora. That fact makes this moment one of the most special in the film.
The supporting cast is led by Sharlto Copley as the grown King Stefan and Elle Fanning (Dakota’s now grown-up younger sister) as the almost 16-year-old Aurora. She’s able to hold her own, within the boundaries of the story, with Jolie. And British actor Sam Riley is quite good as Maleficent’s sidekick.
On the technical side, the visuals include solid soaring sequences and one heck of a fire-breathing dragon. Singer Lana Del Ray’s update on “Once Upon a Dream” is fantastic, though I wish it wasn’t buried in the credits. And probably the most impressive element of all: Jolie’s cheekbones, which are as sharp as those of the animated Maleficent. Get ready to hear the names of this Makeup and Hairstyling team on Oscar night!
Because of its PG rating I was worried that “Maleficent” wasn’t going to be dark or violent enough to be able to appeal to adults as well as children. And it turns out it isn’t very violent or dark at all. There are very few scenes that will scare anyone from 8 to 80. But, in the end, that’s OK, because there’s so much else to like.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Maleficent” gets a B.