Don’t believe the fairy tale
There’s no denying it, the medium of traditional hand-drawn animation isn’t as attractive to the masses at it once was and still ought to be. With a handful of classic children’s stories already under the Disney cannon, the next logical step for the studio was to translate or rework some of their more beloved characters into the ever accessible, thriving live-action film market. Maleficent is Disney’s second attempt at spinning-off one of their own popular properties, with the studio’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) — based on Warner Brothers’ 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz — both failing to truly capture the heart, mind and imagination of audiences around the globe in the same way their counterparts did many years ago.
It’s only now — thanks to the vast improvements over the last decade or so in computer technology — that Disney are fully able to literally bring their cartoon creations to life, replicating their most celebrated designs and giving them a new essence on the silver screen. Prompted — at least in part — by the stage musical Wicked, which also uses the story-behind-the-story device, Maleficent tells the ‘apparent’ untold true account of Disney’s most iconic villainess — last seen in the 1959 masterpiece Sleeping Beauty — exploring the legend surrounding her devastating betrayal by humankind, which subsequently turns her once pure heart into stone.
A beautiful, kind-hearted young fairy, Maleficent, (Isobelle Molloy) has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day, Stefan (Michael Higgins), a young trespasser from the human realm appears and steals the spirited Maleficent’s heart. Some years later, an invading human army appears, led by King Henry (Kenneth Cranham), threatening the harmony of the land. While Maleficent — now played by a perfectly cast Angelina Jolie — rises to be her home’s fiercest protector, she eventually suffers a ruthless betrayal by the hands of her childhood friend, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who chops off the fairy’s wings in order to become King Harold’s successor. Driven by revenge, Maleficent places an irreversible curse upon, the now King Stefan’s newborn infant, Aurora (Elle Fanning), compelling the child to prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep on her sixteenth birthday.
In order to avoid the curse, Aurora is instantly rushed out of the kingdom and hidden away for the next sixteen years and a day, entrusted to the care of three fairies, Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple). As time passes, Maleficent keeps a watchful eye over the child until the day the teenage princess reaches her sweet sixteenth. Now, Aurora finds herself caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest realm she has grown to love and the human monarchy that holds her legacy. All the while, Maleficent slowly discovers that Aurora may inevitably hold the key to attaining peace in the kingdom — and perhaps even restore Maleficent’s true happiness as well.
It comes as no surprise that Disney initially called upon the likes of Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands (1990), to helm the project, although he was later replaced by Robert Stromberg — the production designer for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). While Stromberg does a credible job with his directorial debut, the effects guru essentially allows the fantastical visuals to take over, enlightening filmgoers with enchanting creatures and magnificent locations, opposed to capturing audience’s affection with the spirit of his human players. Despite the fact that Maleficent attempts to literally bring characters from Disney’s past to life, the whole film still comes across as somewhat cartoony and is presented in the customary fashion of Disney’s other live-action projects — albeit some of the creature designs on display share uncanny parallels to those of 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman.
Exposing the narrative through the perspective of the protagonist, Maleficent, Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), carries the weight of the entire project on her shoulders — apparently producer Joe Roth, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), claims that the film would not have been made if Jolie had not agreed to take the role — and she thankfully rises to the occasion, seeing as it’s been four years since she last appeared on screen. Jolie also seems to be enjoying herself, relishing the role of Maleficent, although veiled under heavy-laden prosthetics. Special make-up effects artist Rick Baker, Men in Black (1997) — who was responsible for reshaping Jolie’s features and transforming her into the wicked fairy — does a terrific job with the character of Maleficent and his overall work on the project is more convincing than some of the digital enhancements used elsewhere in the picture.
In terms of secondary players, the actors and actresses in Maleficent were partly cast due to the uncanny resemblances and/or likeness to their respective character counterparts in Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty cartoon. Elle Fanning, Super 8 (2011), is sweet enough as Aurora, but doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as she deserves due to the swift nature of the narrative, while Imelda Staunton, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), Lesley Manville, A Christmas Carol (2009) and Juno Temple, St. Trinian’s (2007) are fun and provide some slapstick comedy — perhaps intended for younger audiences — as the fairies who raise the princess in a woodsy cottage. Sharlto Copley, Elysium (2013) looks as though he is on the brink of madness — as per normal — and overacts with his absurd Scottish accent as King Stefan, similarly Sam Riley, Control (2007), looks silly with his prosthetic nose as Maleficent’s shape-shifting companion, Diaval.
Although the screenplay by Linda Woolverton, Alice in Wonderland (2010), doesn’t lend itself to building complex characters — being more focused on hurrying the narrative along — it’s almost instinctive to excuse the picture’s inherent faults when the action sequences are executed with this much style and flair, particularly when our heroine swoops and swirls around the awe-inspiring land like an eagle, showcasing the film’s immense budget — the largest ever for a first time director, with Robert Stromberg, surpassing another Disney film, TRON: Legacy (2010). In the end, when the wondrous Maleficent appears at Aurora’s christening in a flash of green fire and recites her 1959 spinning wheel curse — almost word-for-word — I’m more or less certain that those who enjoyed Disney’s Sleeping Beauty will without a doubt pardon the picture’s shortcomings and simply enjoy the ride. Be sure to listen out for Lana Del Rey’s haunting cover of the famous 1959 Sleeping Beauty track, ‘Once Upon a Dream,’ as the end credits roll.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Maleficent is released through Disney Australia