Maleficent (United States, 2014)

May 29, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Maleficent Poster

Maleficent might best be described as an alternate universe re-imagination of Sleeping Beauty. Taking a page from Wicked (the stage show that presents Oz from the witches' perspective), Linda Woolverton's screenplay presents an inverted version of the story where the "villain" is presented as the main character. The changes made to Sleeping Beauty work within this new context and, in large part because of Angelina Jolie's forceful and nuanced performance, the title character escapes the one-dimensionality that trapped her in the 1959 Disney classic. Here, she's a deeply tragic and conflicted figure who seeks solace and finds redemption in the most unlikely of ways.

Director Robert Stromberg, making his feature debut after assembling an impressive resume as a visual effects supervisor and production designer (he has worked with Scorsese, Spielberg, and Cameron and owns Oscars for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar), creates a rich and varied realm of magic and whimsy that becomes harsh and foreboding as darker powers emerge. Much of Maleficent has been crafted on computers but the animation is done with sufficient care that nothing looks awkward or artificial. Stomberg's experience with special effects makes him an ideal choice for a movie that demands the creation of a fantastical world. Angelina Jolie's acting provides sufficient emotional heft to balance off the eye candy. The 3-D is strong but by no means mandatory; the movie will work just as well in 2-D while offering a brighter image.

Maleficent reveals how events transformed the title character from a happy, optimistic young fairy into one of Disney's most recognizable villains. As a girl, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) meets and befriends a young human named Stefan (Michael Higgins). The two share a close relationship for many years and, as time passes, it blossoms into a romance. Stefan, however, is seduced by ambition and becomes corrupted. He disappears from Maleficent's forest kingdom, called The Moors, for a long period. When he returns (now played by District 9's Sharlto Copley), he pretends to want to reconnect with his lost love. In reality, his goal is to drug her, cut off her wings, and use them to prove he has the mettle to be the next king of men. The deed done, he returns to the city to await his coronation. Brokenhearted and bitter, Maleficent (now Angelina Jolie) plots her revenge - something she enacts once King Stefan has a daughter. The sorceress pronounces a curse on young Aurora: when the girl reaches her 16th birthday, she will fall into sleep as deep as death. The only thing that will be able to awaken the princess is "true love's kiss."

Maleficent offers two significant twists to the Sleeping Beauty yarn. The first is to make the sorceress' actions explicable. Her deeds aren't the product of malice and inherent evil; there's a reason for them. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and "scorned" is a weak descriptor for what Stefan does to Maleficent. The film also postulates a fairy godmother relationship between Maleficent and Aurora (played as a teenager by Elle Fanning). During the period when the princess is living in a wooded cottage with three fairies, Maleficent visits her regularly and the two become close - so close that Maleficent regrets the curse and attempts to reverse it, to no avail.

Maleficent is a more mature iteration of the tale than Sleeping Beauty, with the story having been framed as a fantasy adventure rather than a traditional fairy tale (much in the same way that Snow White and the Huntsman expanded on the simplistic premise of that animated classic). Screenwriter Linda Woolverton, whose best-known credits include Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, understands the art of developing a script designed to find favor with both adults and their offspring. Although suitable for family viewing, the target audience for Maleficent skews older, with teenage girls and women in their early 20s in the crosshairs. Some scenes may be frightening for children and a battle during the third act, which features a fire-breathing dragon, is intense enough to push the boundaries of the normally tame PG rating.

Calling Maleficent a "modern-day classic," as some have asserted, is overreaching. The production is engaging and appealing but only the passage of time will determine whether it holds in the memory with the strength of its animated predecessor. As with many summer spectacles, the chief draw is visual; the weird and wonderful world is a constant source of astonishment. To complete the cinematic equation, Angelina Jolie's interpretation of the title character, which transforms the animated icon into a complex, fully realized woman, provides emotional depth and breadth. The marriage between the actress' capabilities and the director's experience results in a satisfying and successful motion picture.

Maleficent (United States, 2014)

Director: Robert Stromberg
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2014-05-30
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Fantasy Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1