Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG | 97 Minutes
Release Date: May 30, 2013
Directed by Robert Stromberg, Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s iconic villain from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty and the betrayal that ultimately turned her once-pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) places a cruel and irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn child, Aurora.
As the child grows, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is caught in a middle of an age-old conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her destiny. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.
Based on La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault and Little Briar Rose by The Brothers Grimm, Maleficent marks the directorial debut of Stromberg, who worked previously as a visual effects designer and conceptual artist on blockbusters like James Cameron’s Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. Visually speaking, Maleficent is a hodgepodge of those computer-generated spectacles, with the kind of now-standard fantasy imagery we’ve seen in films like The Lord of the Rings, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Harry Potter series.
Written by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mulan), Maleficent is a revisionist look at a classic fairytale analogous to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It presents characters and events from the story in new ways, with many differences between. Considering Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a misogynist yarn that perpetuates the idea that beauty is the most important gift that can be bestowed upon a woman, and that being an independent, willful woman makes you evil, the changes are welcome.
I mean, let’s face it. The entire premise of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is that – after puberty – a woman exists in a passive, vegetative state until she is awakened by a man whom she is dependent upon for love and support. Maleficent, on the other hand, is – believe it or not – is a rape-revenge film. Stefan (Charlto Copley) drugs the kind and compassionate Maleficent and cuts off her big beautiful strong wings. It’s the Disneyfication of date rape – an uncomfortable scene packed with subtext that turns Disney’s iconic villain into a victim of sexual assault.
Without her wings, Maleficent wanders down a path of anger and revenge. She blankets the forest kingdom in darkness, erecting impenetrable thickets of briars and thorns. She visits the kingdom of men and casts a spell on King Stefan’s newborn daughter, Aurora. Aurora is sent away from the kingdom and placed in the care of three pixies: Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville).
Over the next 16 years, Maleficent keeps tabs on young Aurora and – because the pixies are bumbling idiots – becomes her fairy godmother. She regrets cursing Aurora and taking out her anger on the innocent child – but it’s too late to reverse the spell. Like the old story goes, Aurora can only be awakened by true love’s kiss – but don’t expect Prince Charming to be the one who stirs Sleeping Beauty from her slumber.
These changes are really the only thing that makes Maleficent an interesting film. Yes, Angelina Jolie delivers an imposing-yet-vulnerable performance as the film’s titular villainess but the film around her starts and stalls in spurts. Jolie seemingly channels Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman from Batman Returns – playing a scorned woman who returns – in black leather no less – to punish the man who so thoughtlessly discarded her.
The visual effects are beyond impressive – but we’ve seen it all before. Throughout the film I was reminded of Drew McWeeny’s fantastic piece, Has Life in the Age of Casual Magic Made Moviegoers Numb to the Amazing?; imagining myself as a kid in the ’80s and seeing this level of special effects applied to a film like The NeverEnding Story or The Dark Crystal and how mind-blowing it would be – and how I am so entirely unimpressed by it today.
For some, Jolie’s engaging performance may be enough to make Maleficent worth the watch. For others, Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut is destined to draw comparisons to the big-budget blockbusters it so artlessly apes. It’s not as underwhelming as films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Oz: The Great and Powerful, but Maleficent sags more than it soars.
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