Angelina Jolie, 3D cheekbones shine in uneven 'Maleficent'
If you were putting together a list of things you’d need for a 21st century version of Sleeping Beauty, chances are a dragon wouldn’t be on the list. But that’s because you’re thinking of the classic fairy tale, not the needs of a modern sensation-seeking movie audience: if you’re going to the effort of telling the time-worn tale in glowing CGI-heavy 3D you’re going to want to give the audience something to look at. Preferably something breathing fire.
That means a dragon, and a fairy kingdom that looks like something out of Avatar (first-time director Robert Stromberg was a production designer on that film), and a giant battle where a medieval army faces off against a horde of giant tree-men riding mutant boars, and a scene where a baby falls off a cliff. So what’s left of the original story? That’s where Angelia Jolie comes in.
Once upon a time there were two kingdoms. One was full of regular selfish, greedy humans and was ruled by a king who’d come to power on a platform of conquering the other kingdom, which was full of magical creatures. First amongst equals was the Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), a fairy so kind and good she spends her days complimenting astoundingly ugly monsters and using her magic powers to heal broken tree branches. Then she met a human sneak thief named Stefan (Toby Regbo) when he was caught trying to steal a rock, and if you thought this movie was above saying “he left having stolen something far more valuable” after he and Maleficent hang out, you’d be sadly mistaken.
The years go by, and as the fairly clumsy voice-over informs us, “friendship turned into something more, and on her 16th birthday Stefan gave her a gift – true love’s kiss.” Which presumably is just like a regular kiss, only with groping. But more and more often Stefan is off trying to make a buck while she’s busy leading her kingdom’s forces against the king’s army (cue the giant tree-men), and when they finally do get back together the now-grown Stefan (Sharlto Copley) has been thinking a little too hard about the King’s offer that whoever defeats Maleficent (now Jolie) will become his heir.
All this is the tragedy that’s supposed to be what turns her into the evil Queen of the classic Disney cartoon – if you’re wondering why this version of Maleficent has wings while the classic version does not, Stefan takes care of that for you – but it’s about as tragic as watching a balloon slowly deflate. Partly that’s because Jolie’s heavy make-up and insane 3D cheekbones, while absolutely perfect for her later career as evil personified, don’t leave much room for her to convincingly display the throes of young love. And partly that’s because the whole “scorned women turns evil” was the backstory for the Wicked Witch of the West in Disney’s recent Oz reboot and no-one liked it much there either.
The good news is, once Maleficent goes full evil Jolie really lets loose, sweeping through the film as a force of nature. The fairy kingdom becomes a nightmare, new King Stefan and his wife find Maleficent turning up to their daughter’s christening to lay the traditional “Sleeping Beauty” curse on her (in a nice touch, the “only a true love’s kiss can wake her” is added as an ironic twist – neither Maleficent nor Stefan believe in true love after their bad breakup), and she rescues a raven (Sam Riley) to become her studly shapeshifting manservant. Wait, she rescues a raven?
It’s fairly quickly clear that Maleficent hasn’t really gone over to the dark side – the curse was basically just her version of feeling bummed at discovering your ex has started a family with someone else – which is a bit of a let-down as full-blown evil Jolie is easily the highlight of the film. But even mildly snarky Jolie can be fun, and as a large stretch of this film is just her being arch while surrounded by a lot of happy goodie-goodie characters – including the cursed princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), who mistakes Maleficent for her fairy godmother and quickly warms her icy heart– there’s no real cause for complaint.
The very first line in Maleficent is “Let us tell an old story anew”, and while many of the changes done to the Sleeping Beauty story don’t really add much in terms of grandeur or psychological drama (apart from playing up the “maternal love” angle), once past the slow start there’s no serious missteps here either. Though don’t expect the traditional Sleeping Beauty stuff to be a big deal – it’s basically treated as an afterthought with a twist also seen in another recent Disney movie.
But shunting all the guys to the sidelines doesn’t hurt the film either; in a reversal of the usual Hollywood norms, this is a film with barely a conversation between two men. Though developing Stefan a bit more so that his shift from BFF to King #notallmen made some kind of sense wouldn’t have hurt.
Fanning is a decent counter-weight in the second half as someone who’s pure good but not cloying with it, while a trio of comic relief fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) are, well… maybe little kids will enjoy them. But this is Jolie’s film to make or break and once Maleficent’s wings are gone she really takes off (sorry). It’s an uneven film with a great performance - and some giant tree-men and a massive serpent made out of plant roots.