2.5 out of 5 stars (decent)
Disney has been around for a long time, bringing us animated classics like Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and Tarzan. Of course, those films were in the 1990s, the “Disney Renaissance,” a time when Disney could do no wrong. Disney’s newest trick has been to re-tell its classic animated films with a darker touch, as well as in live action, since live action appeals to a larger audience. In 2010, Disney teamed with director Tim Burton to present a re-tooled Alice in Wonderland, which, while a financial success (so much so that a sequel is in the works), was not a critical hit. Maleficent will likely follow the same path as Alice, but I liked Maleficent more. Maleficent is a dark (for Disney), sometimes funny fantasy telling the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of its villainess, Maleficent. Is it a new Disney classic? No, but it is entertaining.
In this interpretation, Maleficent (played devilishly well by Angelina Jolie) was once a good fairy who became close friends with a human, young Stefan (Sharlto Copley of District 9). Their relationship blossomed through adolescence, when the war between humans and fairies reignited, forcing their lives down separate paths. As they matured, each became a leader in their kingdoms. They met again when the aging human king offered his throne to whoever vanquished Maleficent. Stefan betrayed both Maleficent and the king, leaving her alive, but bitter, while he ascended to the throne.
Years later, Maleficent has a chance for revenge when she learns that Stefan is christening his baby daughter, Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning). Maleficent crashes the affair, cursing her to “fall into a sleep-like state!” on her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel. (It’s as if Disney is afraid to use the word “die” nowadays.) Furious, Stefan tells his guards to burn every spinning wheel and sends Aurora to live in seclusion with three fairies (Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, and the extremely underused Imelda Staunton), who wouldn’t look out of place on one of those never-ending Real Housewives TV shows. Since none of these three imbeciles possess the means to properly raise a child, Maleficent is forced to play fairy godmother in order to keep the child alive long enough to meet her demise. The relationships between all the players of this game change and twist as the child grows.
Maleficent has many good qualities. Angelina Jolie is a fantastic choice for the role, giving it her all, as always. The cinematography and visuals are astounding, and the action scenes are exciting. The computer-generated creatures are entertaining without resorting to crude jokes or bathroom humor. If the film is nominated for anything, it will be in the effects category.
Sadly, other parts of the movie are not as well done. Sharlto Copley is extremely miscast and completely unbelievable as a ruler of this beautiful land, there to yell for the entirety of his time on screen. Elle Fanning plays the role with a little more ditziness than I would have liked, but at least she’s not one of those teenagers who are full of angst. No Bella Swan complex here. The three fairies are some of the most annoying creatures ever to come out of a Disney movie. While their brief bickering was funny in the original, here it makes you want to kill them, and not in a love-to-hate way.
It was very hard for me to tell the age group for which this film was designed. It has Jolie, who treats the role with the seriousness it deserves, but no adult with half of their brain cells working will find the fairies funny. Also, the prince that Aurora is supposed to fall in love with is a huge throwaway character, only there for a couple of awkwardly scripted scenes. The script is the biggest problem. It switches from good, moderately dark scenes to “funny” ones to calm the kids down. The kids in our theater were not scared by this at all. The opening and the climax mirror the previews for the film, but the middle needed some re-writes. No offense to Linda Woolverton (who also wrote Alice in Wonderland) but she should seriously consider finding a writing partner. So far, her writing career has consisted of extremely high-concept ideas that end up being half-baked. All in all, Maleficent is worth seeing and an interesting take on the story, but don’t expect anything magical.
Rated PG for Sequences of Fantasy Action and Violence, Including Frightening Images