The dictionary meaning of the word “maleficent reads “criminal, causing harm or doing evil intentionally, or capable of such acts”. However, Disney’s 2014 Sleeping Beauty makeover would have us believe that the term actually refers to a faery-turned-villainess-turned-godmother that has Angelina Jolie doing alot of heavily eyelinered brooding, infant-princess spying and occasionally, some Lara Croft style fighting. To be fair, if Snow White can fall for a huntsman instead of Prince Charming and the rather delightful Wizard of Oz get a CGI-drenched prequel, then it seems legit that Disney should offer a dark and alternative take on the classic fairytale from the point of view of Jolie’s dangerously alluring enchantress-antagonist.
However, the effort borders on being too mainstream, in line with most other recent fantasy releases(Oz: the Great and Powerful, Snow White and the Huntsman,Alice in Wonderland and the like),suffering from the same flaws(weak screenplays, clichéd story-telling techniques and poor pacing) but ultimately triumphing thanks to the A-list celeb screen presence and optimum blend of live-action and CGI software.
So,the plot. A rather vibrant and richly-hued prologue establishes the settings and the primary conflict between the faery and human realms. The young wild-eyed Maleficent befriends peasant boy Stefan when the latter was caught trying to steal a stone. Love blooms then wilts, when the adult power-hungry Stefan(played by a Scottish-accented Sharlto Copley who looks very much like some knave out of Game of Thrones),hell-bent on becoming the King, betrays the innocent Maleficent and cuts off her prized wings (which by the way, is a nice allusion to the oppression of women; more on that later). Deceived and victimized, Maleficent vows revenge and curses Stefan’s daughter to fall unto a sleep like death that can be broken only by a kiss of true love.
The now shock-stricken and delusional Stefan, to ensure the safety of his infant princess Aurora has her entrusted under the care of three ebullient but clearly inept pixies and nursed in a secluded cottage in the woods. With the pixies being utterly neglectful of their duties, disastrous and comic consequences follow and Maleficent and her raven-turned-human confidant Diaval (a surprisingly engaging Sam Riley)unwittingly become involved in Aurora’s care from which an unexpected friendship blossoms.
The movie primarily works on two fronts: Angelina Jolie and the dazzling CGI-embellished visuals. Jolie breathes life into the traumatized Maleficent in the same way Johnny Depp reinvented the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (2010). Her impeccable acting transforms Maleficent from the quintessential evil sorceress to the rather misunderstood anti-heroine, driven by emotions and plagued by her demons. Symbolically, she might as well represent the suppressed and violated woman breaking out and lashing out at the world that has wronged her. Misguided, she later realizes that her quest for vengeance is directed sorely at Stefan’s act of inhumanity and not out of malice for the blameless Aurora.In short, by making the antagonist “humane”, Jolie renders Maleficent the most and only sufficiently compelling character in the whole movie(and certainly more interesting than Elle Fanning’s breezy and unexciting rendition of Sleeping Beauty),which in this case, is a very good thing. Thus while Jolie may spew venom from her lips, the melancholy in those achingly beautiful eyes say otherwise. Needless to say, the best moments in the film are the well-directed but cruelly cut-short encounters between Maleficent and Aurora.
Yet as stated before, the movie stumbles while reworking the clichés(entire spinning-wheel sequence),the script lacks exuberance, the intense build-up in the first half makes way for a rather rushed climax(Academy-award winning Frozen did a far better job here) and the unimpressive ending sizzles out with a few sparks, like a malfunctioning firework. For those wondering there is indeed an appearance by a Prince Charming ( who looks very much like, but sadly is not, a young Zac Efron). But still somehow the slick fairytale formula continues to work and Jolie as Maleficent is well…magnificent. In fact wherever the movie fails script-wise, the prosthetics-wearing and gothic-aesthetics-pleasing Jolie makes up for it acting-wise.
Another thumbs-up aspect of the film is the art direction. From bewitching faeries to a thunderous dragon, director Robert Stromberg ensures the film is both dark and dazzling, with an attention to detail that may remind dark fantasy enthusiasts uncannily of Tim Burton films. “Enchanting, dream-like and haunting” best sum up the sumptuous imagery that characterizes the movie. Moreover, the background score and Lana Del Rey’s ending credit son “Once Upon A Dream” maintain the surreal atmosphere throughout. Coming from Disney, one might associate the film with fantasy lovers and a young audience, but the timelessness of the tale and the slyly-hinted feminist themes addressed might appeal to adult sensibilities also. And given the rather short 97-minute running time, gorgeous graphics and everything Jolie, Maleficent is a treat you might not want to miss.
And speaking of the graphics, artists out there, you guys are so gonna dig this.
Directed by: Robert Stromberg
Produced by: Joe Roth
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton
Please let me know your thoughts!
(Previously published in Voices, The Statesman)