The Maleficent character was introduced in Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty as “the mistress of all evil.” One of the pleasures of the new film Maleficent, a live-action retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend, is that it develops the title character not as a clear-cut fairytale villain, but as a slighted soul who is reacting, quite understandably, to her mistreatment. But if she’s capable of cruelty and vengeance, so too is she capable of love and tenderness. This means that, even though she has been horribly wronged, she isn’t past all hope. It’s simply a matter of her coming to that realization and then actively working towards redeeming herself. As a voiceover narration tells at the end, this isn’t quite the story we’ve been told before.
She’s played for the most part by Angelina Jolie. Apart from the fact that she is, physically speaking, perfect for the role, her performance successfully alternates between heartfelt emotion and delicious wickedness. In scenes with her companion, a shapeshifting man/raven named Diaval (Sam Riley), she seamlessly puts both traits on display. She’s just heightened enough to be theatrical, but not so heightened that she becomes a grotesque caricature. This is due largely, I believe, to Linda Woolverton’s screenplay, which explores the duality in Maleficent’s character. She’s established in her teenage years as a winged, horned guardian of a woodland fairy kingdom, where all manner of magical creatures roam about; even though their world is divided from and at odds with the mortal world, Maleficent falls in love with a human peasant boy named Stefan, unaware that his love for her is overshadowed by his lust for power.
And so it comes to pass that a now adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley), desperate to succeed the ailing King, amputates Maleficent’s wings and submits them as proof that she has been slain. Stefan has successfully weaseled his way onto the throne, while an enraged and heartbroken Maleficent vows to make him pay for his betrayal. She soon sets her sights on Stefan’s newborn daughter, Princess Aurora, cursing her to unalterably prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday and fall into a permanent sleep. Pleased at seeing Stefan beg for mercy, Maleficent decrees that the curse can be lifted with that most reliable of fairy tale plot devices, namely True Love’s Kiss. She is, of course, only toying with Stefan; her personal history has taught her to believe that True Love doesn’t exist.
As was the case in Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is stashed away in a cottage in the woods and raised for sixteen years by three fairies disguised as peasant women. But Maleficent alters this part of the story in several ways. For one thing, the fairies’ names are changed from Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather to Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Leslie Manville), and their good intentions are thoroughly upstaged by their bumbling, slapstick antics. Furthermore, Maleficent knows the entire time where Aurora is hiding, and she delights in keeping out of sight while pulling magical pranks on the unsuspecting fairies.
Most importantly, she forms a relationship with the teenage Aurora (Elle Fanning), a happy, trusting child who believes Maleficent to be her fairy godmother. Maleficent’s heart melts, but not even that can undo the curse she placed on Aurora. All will depend on True Love’s Kiss, the meaning of which has been radically altered for this version of the story.
The film marks the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, known previously as an Oscar-winning special effects supervisor. He has an affinity for fantastic imagery – clearly evident in no less than James Cameron’s Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful – and Maleficent is no exception. Here is a film I would have been happy to watch with the sound turned off; just about every shot is a cornucopia of visual delights, ranging from the beauty and playfulness of a sprite-laden patch of forest to the darkness and mystery of a fire-breathing dragon in the great hall of a fortified castle. The storybook quality, it must be admitted, is greatly enhanced by the film’s presentation in clear, bright, immersive IMAX 3D.
This isn’t to suggest that the film is free from flaws. To begin with, the three fairies, seen mostly as computer-generated pixies, have been downplayed to the degree of pure comedy relief, so they ultimately serve no real narrative purpose. There’s also the obligatory inclusion of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites), who’s just as much of a nonentity in this film as he was in Sleeping Beauty. And then there’s the climactic final battle; its outcome would have immediate ramifications, all of which are conveniently glossed over in order to get right to the finale. But these are relatively minor complaints. All things considered, Maleficent is an enchanting fantasy film – a visual triumph with a plot that’s just as surprising as it is familiar. It’s greatest achievement, I would argue, was the decision to paint the title character in shades of gray.