One of the great historic benefits of animation was that it could take the audience places and show them things that would be near impossible in a live-action film. So as technology blurs the line between animation and live action, it's really no surprise that there'd be a desire to revisit classic animation with human actors.
And it surely doesn't hurt if the studio already owns all of the intellectual property involved. So it is that Disney's classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, has returned in Maleficent. It is an attribute of our modern society that we seem to be obsessed with stripping nuance from real life while adding it to imaginary life.
So it is not enough to just redo a simple fairy tale with beautiful people (and, in the title role, Angelina Jolie is stunning). No—we must get the "true" story. If the evil acts of Maleficent in the original Sleeping Beauty aren't entirely redeemed in Maleficent, we'll at least learn that it came not from a black soul but from a wounded psyche.
As the movie introduces us, young Maleficent (Ella Purnell at this age) is a powerful young fairy in a land of magical beings. That land exists right next to a land of humans, and they don't really get along. Maleficent is guileless and happy, and shortly has met a young human orphan named Stefan (Michael Higgins). As they age, they fall in love; but while Maleficent is unchanging in her fairy nature (though maturing into Angelina Jolie, even with exceedingly sharp cheekbones, may be pleasing) the ambitions of humans distract Stefan (now grown up into Sharlto Copley).
Without going into detail, to get what he wants, Stefan commits a great crime against Maleficent and fairyfolk. And thus the start of the chain of events depicted in Sleeping Beauty. Things actually merge pretty well between the movies at that point, but slowly they diverge again until a dramatically different conclusion is reached. But that's OK—this is the real story, while Sleeping Beauty was merely propaganda slanted to Stefan's point of view.
As a script, it all works extremely well. Personally, I've never really connected with the simplicity of Disney's classic fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella. So padding out the motivations of everybody involved is a welcome addition.
The cast as well is generally good. Jolie is Maleficent. Not just a Maleficent, but specifically the Marc Davis vision of Maleficent. The strange subsurface (or sometimes not so "sub") that Sharlto Copley has brought to previous roles like in District 9, The A-Team, and Elysium serves him well again as he deals with the paranoia of what his ambition has wrought.
In this telilng, Aurora's role is to be a pure soul serving as the fulcrum of all the conflict around her, and Elle Fanning is up to that task. Comic relief is provided by the three pixies who raise Aurora. For this movie, they've been renamed Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville), and Thistlewit (Juno Temple); no idea what was wrong with Merryweather, Flora, and Fauna. Sam Riley also gets in some humorous moments (especially considering that often he's a crow) as Maleficent's right-hand man.
The story is good even if not really achieving any new ground, and the acting is fine. The problem—and there had to be one—is that the computer part doesn't quite carry the day. Early on when we're treated to watching Maleficent show off her mighty fairy wings, it looks like director Robert Stromberg, in his directorial debut, decided to save money and use from his Academy Award-winning set direction on Avatar to buy the digital backgrounds from the planet Pandora. And when watching the less human fae flit around the screen, at no point did it feel like they had any reality.
Some may find the signficant deviations from the story established by Disney 55 years ago distressing. But that's OK—after all, Sleeping Beauty was a take on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Little Briar Rose," which was a take on Charles Perrault's telling of "La Belle au bois dormant," which itself was just the writing down of one version of that story in the culture.
Embrace the difference that can be found within the same structure. Though, if this movie is a huge hit (and, honestly, it doesn't feel like it will be) it does raise some interesting questions for which version of Maleficent will get to continue walking around Disneyland.
- Maleficent is Walt Disney Pictures release.
- Wide theatrical release on Friday, May 30
- Directed by Robert Stromberg
- Starring Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
- Running time: 97 minutes
- Rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images
- Alex's rating: 8 out of 10