Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014)
The new Disney film that opens today, Maleficent, loosely based on the company’s very own Sleeping Beauty – which was, itself, based on stories by the 17th-century French author Charles Perrault – is not a particularly good movie. It starts well, but then descends into a mire of meaningless filler in its middle section which weighs down the entire enterprise, before coming back up for a vibrant (and feminist) breath of fresh air at the end. That the film succeeds at all is primarily due to the charms and magnetic presence of its star, Angelina Jolie (last seen on screen in 2010’s odd misfire The Tourist), who does her best with an uneven supporting cast and a lot of CGI. Ms. Jolie is both the reason to see the film and the reason to lament the weakness of so many of her co-stars and the lameness of that second act. She gives it her all, and takes us for a delightful ride, when she can.
Here’s as simple a summary as possible. It turns out that Maleficent is not a witch – as most of us with only a passing memory of the 1959 film might have thought – but a winged fairy (though she was apparently a fairy in the original tale). She presides (as protectress) over a magical land known as “The Moors,” which sits adjacent to a human kingdom filled with covetous folk who eye her treasures with greed and envy. When, one day, a young (human) thief, Stefan, tries to steal from “The Moors,” she befriends him, and little by little they fall in love. When the nearby king decides to attack and conquer The Moors, Stefan abandons Maleficent to join his fellow men. When he subsequently commits an act of horrific betrayal against Maleficent in order to achieve power for himself, he sets in motion the plot that we know from the original story and Disney film. For it his daughter who will become the “sleeping beauty” of legend, and it is Maleficent who will become the evil witch. However, since this time we see the story through her eyes, we are, perhaps, inclined to interpret matters differently. She is the wronged party; the king is evil.
It’s a nice twist, and reminiscent of the same kind of shift in perspective made popular by the hit Broadway musical Wicked. The story is not without interest, especially in the opening battle sequence between the men and the fairies (where the CGI serves the story, rather than threatening to overwhelm it). The problems begin, however, as soon as Stefan grows into a man, for he is then played by Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium), who is bereft of charisma and therefore makes a most unworthy screen opponent for Jolie’s wicked charmer. And then we are treated to a dismal (and long) sequence where Aurora (who will grow into the cursed beauty, eventually to be played by a fine Elle Fanning, of Super 8 fame) slowly matures in the woods under the distracted gaze of three of the most annoying fairies ever to un-grace the screen. Once Aurora approaches 16 – the year of the curse – the movie picks up again, and ends with a climactic battle worthy of an epic, and a very fine twist on the original story. It’s as if the writer, Linda Woolverton (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), knew from the get-go how she was going to begin and end her story, but was at a complete loss how to connect the two parts. Still, the final wrap-up – feminist revisionism and all – almost makes it all worthwhile.
In spite of my story reservations, I would recommend it to all of your sons and, especially, daughters, but some of the violence is actually fairly dark (please note that the film is rated PG, and not G), so be forewarned. Oh, and one other final reason to consider seeing it is this marvelous adaptation of one of the songs from the 1959 film, “Once Upon a Dream” (based on a melody from Tchaikovsky’s original Sleeping Beauty ballet), which plays over the end credits. Enjoy!