"Maleficent" An Unnecessary Take on an Old Tale
Some things are better left alone. Sometimes, those who wear white hats shouldn’t have them tarnished while those who don the black version shouldn’t have them lightened. Obviously, in life it’s better to understand how people become the way they are but as far as some forms of entertainment, absolutes are better where dramatic tension is concerned. Case in point: Disney’s “Maleficent,” the studios reimagining of the “Sleeping Beauty” tale that sheds some light on the title character, a starkly drawn villain in previous versions of the story who, here, is seen as a misunderstood, scorned woman whose dark deeds are all but justified. The success of the novel “Wicked” and the wildly successful Broadway adaptation of it have made tales of this sort fashionable and while that story worked primarily because it explored every angle of the Wicked Witch of the West’s backstory, the screenplay here by Linda Woolverton is content with giving us a simplistic explanation of how an innocent fairy could become a paragon of evil.
There’s a civil war brewing at the beginning of the film as two kingdoms – one filled with traditional human folk, the other a magical land replete with fairies, trolls and other enchanted creatures – exist side-by-side in a tenuous peace. While the denizens of the mystical realm wish to be left alone, the human’s curiosity as to what lies beyond their border has reached a fever pitch. When a young boy, Stefan (Michael Higgins) trespasses into the forest and is caught stealing a crystal, he encounters Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), a powerful winged fairy,and he’s immediately smitten. They form a deep friendship between them and as time passes it begins to resemble love. Eventually, King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) invades Maleficent’s (Angelina Jolie) home but is run off and wounded by her. As a result, he puts a price on her head – his crown being the prize – and the now-grown Stefan (Sharlto Copley, delivering a one-note performance) sets out to find his former friend. He commits an act that drives a wedge between the two lands, irreparably scars Maleficent, and ultimately results in her placing a dreaded curse on his daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) years in the future.
Once we reach this point in the story, it plays out pretty much as Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” did with a few key exceptions. The title character crashes the party celebrating Aurora’s birth, cast that dreaded spell – you know, 16th birthday, the spinning wheel, eternal sleep, etc., etc. – and then bides her time. However, in the years leading up to the fated birthday, Maleficent, tormenting the three diligent aunts (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) assigned to raise Aurora in a remote cottage, comes to love the girl, so much so that she attempts to retract her curse but is forced to watch fate play its hand.
Woolverton goes out of her way to cast Maleficent in a more favorable light, and for the most part she succeeds as the character’s journey from dark to light is gradual and benefits from Jolie’s reserved performance in this section of the film. The writer provides her with a worthy foil as well in her faithful crow Diaval (Sam Riley), who we now learn was once a man she saved and who can be transformed into any creature she sees fit. (His appearance as a dragon is one of the film’s highlights.) He proves to be Maleficent’s Jiminy Cricket, nudging her towards the high road until she sees the error of her ways. However, this all takes a bit too long – scenes are needlessly stretched and there’s too many failed gags with the aunts – and you can feel Woolverton looking for ways to pad her thin tale.
Without a doubt, the film rests on Jolie’s shoulders and she carries the enterprise with ease. Sporting wonderfully sharp angles – reminiscent of the Bride of Frankenstein - and a wardrobe a dominatrix would kill for, the actress glares, sneers and preens her way though the production, refusing to be upstaged by the copious special effects and fantastic sets that surround here. Having been absent from the screen for four years, it’s easy to forget what a formidable presence she is and her turn here left me hoping she’d choose more worthy projects in the future to showcase her talent than she has in the past.
In the end, despite Jolie’s fine efforts and exceptional production and art design, “Maleficent” feels oddly off. It all comes down to a question of perspective or, as my assistant Megan Bostaph stated in reference to the title character, “Once she became good, she wasn’t really that interesting,” which sums up the problem with the movie. While telling Maleficent’s backstory may satisfy the curiosity of some and increase Disney’s coffers, it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling story.