In 'Maleficent', Angelina Jolie Channels Shakespeare's Richard III

by J.C. Macek III

4 November 2014

Like the great antiheroes of history, Angelina Jolie's seductive performance as Maleficent gets you to root for her even as she commits acts of evil.
 
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Maleficent

Director: Robert Stromberg
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple

(Disney)
US DVD: 4 Nov 2014
UK DVD: 20 Oct 2014

There is a certain silliness in most movies in which cartoons are translated to live action and grown adults are forced to act like cartoon characters. One would think that considering the critical praise and box office power of Disney’s Maleficent that this might have been expunged. However, in this retelling of the 1959 Disney version of the Sleeping Beauty story, the trio of Fairies who care for young Aurora (Elle Fanning) somehow seem fine in their CGI guises of cartoonish fairies, but when the fairy godmothers are morphed to human dimensions (where they resemble the actresses who play them, Juno Temple, Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville) the result feels like something out of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers with adults merely acting silly for the cartoon-themed camera.

To be sure, this is likely merely to appeal to kids (and why shouldn’t it?) but Maleficent is an overall dark film with some very non-kid-friendly moments, especially surrounding the title character as played by Angelina Jolie.

It is in its central character, Maleficent truly finds its strength, primarily due to the actress’ strength and pathos in the role. There is no dearth of “Sympathy for the Devil” stories. In fact, the trend of “humanizing” the villain and finding the psychological reasons for villainy and inverting the old fairy tales has been done to death in the past several years. Clearly, Disney and the cast and crew are well aware of this fact because they have succeeded greatly in creating a very different kind of fairy tale that doesn’t quite feel like the same “villain redemption” story that we have seen a thousand times.

According to the bonus features (of which there are thankfully many), screenwriter Linda Woolverton approached Maleficent with a simple question: the original story establishes the character as a fairy and in this fairy tale world, fairies have wings. So, then: what happened to Maleficent’s wings?

Director Robert Stromberg runs with this premise beautifully, telling the story of the winged (and horned) Maleficent from her early days in the enchanted forest through her first encounters with the world of humans all leading up to the famous uninvited crashing of the Christening of young Princess Aurora. There, of course, the curse that will make her “Sleeping Beauty” is laid upon her by Maleficent, clearly the villain that the original film showed that she was. Also present is the enchanted castle, the wall of thorns and even our own resident Prince Charming.

That said, the very motivations behind Sleeping Beauty are altered drastically here. While this could be something of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of the fairy lot (with the exact same events taking place but a larger story unfurling behind the scenes), Maleficent goes in a completely different direction. In many cases these alterations are justified and make the story better. In other situations they feel a bit like change for the sake of change or even change for the sake of clever cuteness. The length of Aurora’s famed sleep and the method of her awakening may feel less familiar, for example.

Do these stranger changes (no spoilers, folks) ruin the original story or make Maleficent its own adventure? Mostly the latter, because nitpicking too far in this film would both be overly cynical and missing the point. Maleficent is not always fun and cartoonish and with its scenes of war, revenge and betrayal, many of these moments prove to be the exact opposite of “uplifting”. However, Stromberg and Woolverton weave an enchanting tapestry with most every element worthy of propping up the finale. And the secret weapon here remains Angelina Jolie herself.

Even at its silliest, Maleficent is a well-acted film, with Sharlto Copley turning in a memorable performance and Elle Fanning proving to be an inspired choice for Aurora/Sleeping Beauty. Jolie manages to steal her own show in most every scene. Jolie is excellent as the hopeful fairy, enjoying the world she flies through. She is also brilliant as the Dark Lady, who could be a perfect counterpart to any Darth Vader, as she malevolently takes her revenge on those who have wronged her.

Further, Jolie never loses her pathos as her character goes bad. She is seductive as the dark Maleficent, but still retains the core of her innocence. In this way she remains something of a modern Richard III with his ability to get the audience to root for him, even as he performs great evil. While I’m not exactly comparing Woolverton to Shakespeare here, it is noteworthy how much depth was both written into the character and executed by Jolie.

Still, with its sillier moments (clearly designed to appeal to kids, but not necessarily in the best ways), Maleficent isn’t quite perfect. The acting, overall story, directing and oft-seamless special effects (the CGI does occasionally “look like CGI”, to be fair) make Maleficent well worth seeing, especially as it stands up to repeat viewings.

Befitting of a Disney Blu-ray, Maleficent’s first release has enough extras to qualify for the Criterion Collection. Deleted scenes, documentaries and a commentary (that goes beyond the very adult “social commentary” that we find in the film) all enhance the viewing of this new classic.

There is still something to be said for the purity of the cartoon fairy tales of Disney’s golden era, and this darker retelling may not sit well with a few purists. However, let us not forget that Maleficent became one of Disney’s premiere baddies because she was so dark and menacing in the first place. This is far from a mere “humanizing” of the character, but a worthy adventure in its own right. For the purists, this remains a Disney fairy tale (not quite as dark as the Grimms, but not all sunshine and pixie dust either), for the film fan at large, Maleficent is a spectacle for the eyes and is well acted in every part, especially that of the very capable star.

Maleficent

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