Nothing is quite what it seemed in Disney’s retelling of its classic 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty – least of all the villain of the piece and the character around whom this film is centred, Maleficent.
Recounting the original story from the point of view of the black horned and black-robed wicked fairy – as played by Angelina Jolie - Maleficent throws several story twists and turns into the mix, creating a whole new tale from the familiar plot points and characters in which white becomes black and vice versa very, very quickly.
Without revealing too much of the story, Maleficent has a good reason to be furious with the King when she gets round to placing the iconic curse on Princess Aurora – and she also finds a reason to begin regretting it. Saying any more than that would take too much of the pleasure you’re going to get watching this movie away, because make no mistake; Maleficent is a blast from start to finish. A terrific, visually stunning fantasy story that slyly subverts and rewrites a classic Disney tale, Maleficent is anchored by a fantastic performance from Angelina Jolie, who is truly magnificent.
Far from the one-dimensional villain we already know, Maleficent is a more complex character and Jolie nails it brilliantly in a scenery-chewing, show-stealing performance. She’s having an absolute ball with this one, and it really shows; given a strong character that she can sink her teeth into, Jolie goes to town. Her portrayal of the fun-to-be-bad girl tempered by the acknowledgement that Maleficent’s wickedness comes from a place of injury and pain is a real joy to watch.
This is Jolie’s movie, make no mistake about it. One of several niggling criticisms that are likely to get aimed at Maleficent is that there’s barely any room for anyone else to manoeuver, with both Sharlto Copley and Elle Fanning left with little to do or having much in the way of character development. Another criticism is likely to be the simplicity of the story set-up, with the world divided in the human lands and the fairy-filled Moors which Maleficent protects, but which somewhat lacks depth. It’s a fairy tale writ large, allowances can be made. A third and final criticism that is likely to crop up is that Maleficent relies overmuch on visual effects.
Of the last criticism the only thing I can say is that Maleficent is in many ways an effects driven fantasy film - but a brilliant one (Check out the trailers and clips here for a taste). With Robert Stromberg making his directorial debut following years working in VFX, this is hardly a surprise. Flight sequences are a dime a dozen in movies these days, but when Maleficent takes to the skies, or takes on an entire army with her wings, there’s a new thrill to the sequences, whilst the 3D has been skilfully worked into the film well enough to make me do a rare thing and actually recommend viewing it in 3D. Stromberg does not disappoint with his visuals at all, creating some terrific effects, action sequences and moments. A couple of scenes fly perilously close to being Avatar-esque knock-offs, but that’s about the only issue – so let’s call them homages instead (which, to be fair, they probably are).
Of the other character criticism, I can only counter it with the main point of this movie and repeat: Jolie is magnificent, and all these niggling other criticisms melt away in the face of her performance. Much credit for the success of Maleficent must, however, also go to the script by Linda Wolverton based on a story by Charles Perrault – the film very nearly does a “Shrek” by turning expectations and familiar tropes on their head. The way things twist and turn and give you a whole new story is a real strength here, and all due credit to Disney for going along with this one.
Maleficent is also very funny several times, with both the central protagonist and the three fairy godmothers providing the humour. In a movie landscape that is dominated by guys in costumes with superpowers and/or robots, it is terrific to have a movie come along that puts a strong – and relatively complex – female character firmly in the centre; Maleficent also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours.
At 97 minutes, the movie is refreshingly compact, though I wonder if audiences now getting used to two to three-hour epics may feel slightly shortchanged. But the tight pacing – despite the film being stretched out over a period of sixteen years – means you are never left feeling that the film is dragging its feet as it rushes towards its conclusion.
Overall, I’m amazed at how well Maleficent turned out. Seriously, no one is more surprised than me to be finding I’m awarding this 5 stars. But even with all the niggling criticisms that are likely to be thrown at Maleficent (and there’s bound to be a miserly few, as noted) one fact remains:
There was a strong round of applause from the packed audience at the screening I went to – and I was more than a little bemused to find myself enthusiastically clapping away with everyone else.
This is a Movie with a capital M – and good grief:
Dave is the Editor of TLFR and a freelance writer. As well as a guest on BBC radio and regular appearances on the television show Reel Review, he has written for The Guardian, We Got This Covered, the International Political Forum and more.