Angelina Jolie in full-on Maleficent mode.
(2014) Fantasy (Disney) Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham, Hannah New, Sarah Flind, Isobelle Molloy, Michael Higgins, Ella Purnell, Jackson Bews, Angus Wright, Janet McTeer (voice), Oliver Maltman, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. Directed by Robert Stromberg
Little boys everywhere know this to be true: never mess with a Disney princess. That’s a war in which there is no winning. Of course, little boys grow up and forget the lessons they knew when they were young.
Most of us know the story of Sleeping Beauty, the fairy tale in which Princes Aurora, daughter of a greedy king, is cursed by a wicked sorceress to sleep for eternity, only awakening with true love’s kiss. Of course, that’s just one side of the story.
Maleficent (Jolie) is the aforementioned wicked sorceress, but she wasn’t always that way. Once she was a young woman in the enchanted land known as the Moors, adjacent to a human kingdom ruled by a greedy king (but not the aforementioned one). Reacting to rumors of wealth in the Moors, the King (Cranham) brings his army to bear on the Moor. However, Maleficent isn’t just any ol’ young woman; she’s charismatic, a leader of the denizens of the Moor and she rallies her people to fight off the invasion, personally humiliating the King and sending him back to his castle with his tail between his legs (figuratively; the only tails in this war belong to the people of the Moor).
Furious, the King promises his daughter and the crown of the land to whoever kills Maleficent. Stefan (Copley), an ambitious pageboy in the service of the King, overhears this and realizes an opportunity is at hand. He alone of anyone in the Kingdom has the best chance of accomplishing this; that’s because he has had a relationship with Maleficent since boyhood and the fairy-born sorceress has feelings for him.
He steals out to the Moors and canoodles with Maleficent, slipping her a sleeping draught in the process. While she’s out, he can’t quite bring himself to kill her but still manages to do something dreadful, enough to win himself the throne and the princess as well as the enduring hatred of the sorceress and every big boy knows never to mess with a woman scorned.
She waits for Stefan to have a child of his own before leveling her terrible curse – that the newborn babe will live to her 16th year, growing in beauty and grace, beloved by all. Before sundown on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death, never to awaken again. Only true love’s kiss will awaken her.
Horrified, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom collected and broken into pieces and then burned, their remains stored in the castle. He sends the infant to a remote corner of his kingdom, a bucolic cottage where she will be raised by three fairies in human form; Knotgrass (Staunton), Fittle (Manville) and Thistlewit (Temple).
The infant grows into a beautiful young girl (Fanning), beloved by the women she knows as her aunts but also observed by Maleficent and her minion, Diaval (Riley), a crow that Maleficent changes into human form from time to time (among other things). Maleficent, somewhat curious about the girl she has cursed, brings her into the Moor and soon becomes enchanted herself by the girl’s love and beauty. She slowly begins to regret her actions because Maleficent knows why her curse is so terrible – that there is no such thing as true love.
Stromberg made his name in Hollywood as the production designer for such films as Avatar and Oz, the Great and Powerful. This is his first feature film as a director and given his expertise, he was given the largest budget ever for a first-time director. To his credit, you can see every penny on the screen. This is a visually stunning movie and the Moors is as enchanting an environment as you’re likely to see at the movies this year.
But even given the gorgeous effects, the best thing about the movie is Angelina Jolie. I don’t know if she’d consider this an insult, but she was born to play this role. Her intimidating stare, her malevolent smile, her ice-cold eyes make for a perfect villain, and to make matters even better, she resembles facially the cartoon Maleficent quite closely (in fact, most of the actors were cast for their physical resemblance to the characters of the Sleeping Beauty animated feature).
Jolie gives the character depth, from the anguished cry when she is betrayed by Stefan to the evil grin as she throws soldiers around in the air like she’s juggling bowling pins and to the softening of her heart as she begins to fall under Aurora’s sway. This isn’t the kind of thing that wins Oscars but it is nonetheless one of the better acting performances that you’re going to find at the movies in 2014. She nails this role.
Which is where we come to the big question about the movie. Disney purists have howled that the new movie messes with Maleficent, turning her into a sympathetic character rather than the deliciously evil villain of the original 1959 film and of course they have a point. The movie takes a page from Wicked not only in looking at a classic story from the point of view of its villain, but in explaining the villain’s motivations for her actions and in the end, making other characters the true villain while making the original villain somewhat heroic. Wicked has been in film development for a decade and perhaps we’ll see it on the big screen someday but for now, Maleficent does the same thing for Sleeping Beauty. While some will find it intriguing, others may be less sanguine about seeing a beloved story messed with.
I liked Riley in the role of Maleficent’s flunky. He is courtly and occasionally sour; “Don’t change me into a dog. Dogs eat birds,” he grouses at his mistress at one point. He makes a fine foil for Jolie. Fanning’s role has been described as a “happy idiot” which isn’t far from the mark but her character doesn’t give Fanning, who has shown tremendous skill in meatier roles, much to work with. She’s mainly here to be cursed and the source of Maleficent’s regret and she does both solidly.
There are some logical lapses here. For example, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels destroyed and yet at the crucial time there’s a bunch of them (broken apart to be sure) sitting in the castle, waiting for Aurora to come and prick her finger on them. Why wouldn’t you burn them to ash and then bury the ashes to be sure? Nobody ever accused King Stefan of thinking clearly however.
In any case, I will say that Da Queen has always been a huge fan of the character – it is her favorite Disney villain – and she felt let down by the film. To both of our surprise, I wound up actually liking the movie more than she did and I’m not the Disney fan she is. Take that for what it’s worth. Still, if you don’t come in with expectations that this is going to be a live action version of Sleeping Beauty that sticks exactly with canon, you’ll find that this is another solidly entertaining summer movie that may not have a ton of substance (although there are some subtexts here that are intriguing, though not terribly developed) but will take you away and out of your lives for a couple of hours and that’s never a bad thing.
REASONS TO GO: Jolie is perfect for the role. Incredible production design and special effects. Well-cast.
REASONS TO STAY: May offend Disney purists. Maleficent not evil so much as throwing a tantrum. A few logical holes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action, battle violence and some pretty frightening images. The really little ones will probably be terrified of the dragon and of some of the Moor creatures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Jolie’s first film in four years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Without a Face
FINAL RATING: 7/10