Summary: At the beginning of Maleficent, a narrator (Janet McTeer) issues the audience a challenge: We may not know the story of Sleeping Beauty quite as well as we think. Then we meet Maleficent as a young fairy happily breezing over her homeland, the moors, a magical land of incredible landscapes and cute little creatures. As she grows up, Maleficent is tasked with defending the realm against the human world on the other side of the forest. But she befriends a human boy named Stefan and lets her guard down enough for him to betray her. A shadow falls over the moors and Maleficent retreats to the darkness, waiting for a chance at revenge. She gets it when Stefan becomes king and his wife has a child, Princess Aurora. At her christening, Maleficent curses the infant and the legend is born. But things don't play out as in the fairy tale, Maleficent soon regrets her decision when she sees the truth of Aurora's nature and realizes the princess is the key to the peace she once knew.
Angelina Jolie Lives Up to the Hype
The most memorable detail of Disney's Maleficent is easily the world famous actress at its center. The role is built for a true movie star and Jolie provides that credibility. She's beautiful, with alabaster skin and deep red lips that part slowly when she smiles. But she's also otherworldly with frightening yellow eyes and Lady Gaga's cheekbones. It's impossible to take your eyes off her when she's onscreen.
The Moors, a Magical Kingdom
Maleficent is director Robert Stromberg's first feature film. He's the Oscar-winning art director behind Alice in Wonderland and Avatar so he's imminently prepared for world creation. As Maleficent whisks us away at the beginning of the movie, the Avatar influences are apparent. Tall floating islands dot the landscape and pristine rivers cut through the lush green terrain. In Maleficent's happy formative years, the Moors are an equally happy reflection of her spirit. Troll-like creatures spring up from hiding and look to play, while fairies buzz around leaving trails of star dust behind. Likewise, the kingdom of men boasts the one of the most impressive castles in recent memory. While the bar may have been set by Minis Tirith in 2003, Maleficent just about matches it in terms of breathtaking establishing shots. Once inside, the castle is awash with armor and tapestries of all sizes and colors. Whatever you want to say about the film, the CGI and production design look amazing, if not totally distinct.
Is Nothing Sacred?
Purists may not agree, but the significant changes made to Disney's 1959 animated story in Linda Woolverton's screenplay are definitely a good thing. First, the film creatively weaves the meat of the original into a new story: the wall of thorns, the christening and curse, the spinning wheel are all still there, but they're re-envisioned for a new generation. Disney has always taken heat for its outdated treatment of women and Maleficent is another step forward for the studio which seems intent on making up for lost time. Last year Frozen presented the public with a young female heroine (Elsa) who was multi-faceted and more than a one dimensional beauty queen, not to mention she wasn't hung up on a love for some dude. Maleficent is in the same vein. Yes, the anti-heroine is betrayed by love, but the cause of her anger is really her loss of identity. She fights to regain it and in the process, loses the moral road. It's how she learns to love again and trust herself that makes her story much more than the usual fairy tale.
What Doesn't Work?
A Rushed Narrative Forces Things
Maleficent is a tidy 97 minutes and it spans decades. That means characters grow up before our eyes and massive changes take place across the land. The film falters by obsessing over special effects instead of story by implementing generic battle scenes and sweeping wide angles for no real reason. That time would've been better spent developing characters. King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is especially strange, morphing from an admirable teen to a cowardly young man and finally into a raging king hell-bent on killing Maleficent. The movie just tries to do too much. It takes the story of Sleeping Beauty and all it entails and then adds the complex backstory of Maleficent. There just isn't enough room for both.
Okay, this is a tricky one because Maleficent is, well, a villain. But that's the thing. In this movie, she isn't. She's both good and bad, but if you judge her character based on the ominous storm clouds and shadows that accompany most of her scenes, you'd never guess she could be a hero. Little kids will be scared by this movie. There's just too much nightmare-inducing activity, from the warring factions of armored men and scary trees to Maleficent herself (the eyes might've been a bit overboard). That was the big problem for younger audiences with Snow White and the Huntsman. That movie was PG-13 and Maleficent is PG, but I'm baffled as to why. Both films generate huge battle sequences and intense violent scenes where death hangs in the air. Maleficent is more of a fairy tale, but it's dragged down by too many dark scenes that shut out the light.
Final Grade: B-
Directed by Robert Stromberg
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple
Written by Linda Woolverton based on La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault
Music by James Newton Howard
Runtime: 97 minutes
Based on Maleficent, Netlfix would also recommend: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Huntsman, Once Upon a Time (TV), Oz the Great and Powerful, Grimm (TV), Alice in Wonderland, Avatar
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