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

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.


Director: Robert Stromberg
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Length: 97 minutes
Studio: Disney
Year: 2014
Distributor: Kino Lorber
MPAA Rating: PG
UK Release Date: 2014-10-20
US Release Date: 2014-11-04

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.






'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.