I feel like I need to preface this review by coming clean that I've never seen Disney's Sleeping Beauty. I was meaning to, mind you. I'd hoped to quickly get a viewing in before last week, but the window on that one closed rapidly, so I was admittedly missing some key pieces of background when it came to my reaction to Maleficent, the studio's retelling-reinvention-reimagining of that beloved family fave from '59. Thus, when my screening ended and I registered my positive feelings, I raced home to hit up the web and see how well the new movie, directed by Robert Stromberg, dovetails with its animated antecedent.
Needless to say, it doesn't very much, and where it tries, it mostly fails. Thus I was faced with a conundrum. I liked Maleficent on its own, but when viewed with the work it's attempting to build on, it seems like a bit of a forced fit. The film shamelessly borrows a page from the playbook of the long-running musical Wicked by taking the assumed villain of a beloved children's tale (in that case The Wizard of Oz, which the Mouse House just prequelized last year with Sam Raimi's Oz, the Great and Powerful), and giving us the old story from a new point of view. But while Wicked is told with a wink, Maleficent takes a more straight-ahead "Everything you knew is wrong!" approach.
After some context-setting narration by actress Janet McTeer (as who, I won't say), we're introduced to young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), who serves as guardian of the Moors, her magical realm. After a young human boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) wanders into said Moors, the two form a bond of friendship that soon blossoms into love. Eventually, she grows into Angelina Jolie, he grows into Sharlto Coply, and they drift apart. That is, until the king of the castle down the road (literally, it's like walking distance away), tasks Stefan with doing away with Maleficent after she repeatedly thwarts his attempts to overrun the Moors.
Using their previous relationship (which had been sealed with "love's true kiss") to lure her in, Stefan drugs Maleficent and, unable to deliver the finishing blow out of guilt, instead deprives her of her majestic wings, which he then uses as a trophy to win the throne. Soon enough, King Stefan is blessed with child, and a very angry Maleficent shortly arrives to give the new princess a gift of vengeance: she'll be pricked by the needle of a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and lapse into an eternal sleep that can only be cured by receiving "true love's kiss." Ouch. Ironic curses are the worst.
I'll end the synopsis there, but add that things don't quite go in the direction you'd expect if you've grown up with the 1959 animated flick, and I'd expect that most folks who have may have a problem with the way this particular version zigs instead of zags. Certainly, the rape-betrayal metaphor is pretty open and obvious, and adds an uncomfortable degree of subtext to not just this movie, but also retroactively to the one that inspired it. Also, despite what you may think, this isn't a story that adds complexity to a villain. It's not Hannibal. Rather, there's no way you leave the theater thinking the title character is anything but a misunderstood hero. So you're either down with that or you're not.
Now, in terms of visuals, Stromberg makes a very strong impression for a directing debut thanks to his extensive background in special effects. Having worked on both Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Raimi's Oz, both for Disney, Stromberg's visual palette for Maleficent is of a piece with those efforts. And while the script by Disney vet Linda Woolverton is mostly paint-by-numbers, it's almost singlehandedly elevated by the mere presence of Angelina Jolie at the center of its swirl of CGI images. She's intimidating enough to let us know she means business, but she also has a warmth that makes her growing fondness for young Aurora (Elle Fanning) feel real and (thanks to the ticking clock element of the impending curse) tragic.
If nothing else, Maleficent serves as a perfect example of why Jolie is one of the most in-demand actors on the planet. Through the sheer power of her personality (with, of course, an able assist from Rick Baker's remarkable prosthetics), she's able to create a character who has equal parts bombast and fragility (with her relationship with her sidekick-servant Diaval, played by Sam Riley, another highlight). Jolie gives both Maleficent the character and Maleficent the film the kind of layers and texture that may seem unnecessary -- or even unwelcome -- to anyone who feels loyal to the Sleeping Beauty version of the story, but taken on their own make for an engaging experience that's visually rich and emotionally resonant. B