Review: Maleficent (2014)

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MaleficentI have really come to dislike the new wave of evil reimagined. Old stories retold in new ways have always fascinated me, and I enjoy a spirited parody having a go at something tried & true, but turning what was once wicked to winsome and what was once good to greedy & glib has worn thin. We are being bombarded with the idea that what was originally bad was really good all along and what we thought was good was actually the real evil.

I suppose this happens far too often in real life, and fiction can do what it pleases, but these new stories completely undo the old instead of enhance or enrich them. It is from this frame of mind that I review Maleficent.

NOTE: Spoilers will abound

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent. That is both an obvious casting statement as well as a commentary on her importance to the film. There is rarely a minute that goes by that Maleficent is not on the screen, and Jolie inhabits that character for most of the movie. Her performance is stunning. She plays the revisionist Maleficent exquisitely. I was honestly shocked.

In the previews and trailers I was concerned about Jolie’s accent, coy looks & smiles and CGI wings & surroundings. All of that faded away within the context of the film. She is impressive, to say the least, and shows great range of emotion throughout Maleficent’s journey. Her makeup and costumes (with one exception at the end) are perfect.

At the outset, a young Maleficent, fairy (faery?) protector of the Moors, meets a young human thief named Stefan. This is the first time either has met the other’s kind. Humans are not supposed to enter the land of magical CGI creatures and vice versa because they’re at some sort of odds. The two immediately hit it off and fall supposedly in love over the next handful of years. Stefan is described as ambitious and has aspirations on living in the castle (as king, we assume) and stays gone from Maleficent for quite some time.

War eventually erupts between the kingdom of man and Moors, and Maleficent’s tree creatures emerge victorious. Stefan reappears shortly after this battle and this is where everything started to unravel for me. Maleficent becomes full of fury like a fairywoman scorned (for a few scenes) and the rest of the movie follows the general storyline of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty only with about 90% of that original turned on its ear.

ASIDE: The movie claims to be inspired by both the Disney version and the Charles Perrault version, but it’s really just the Disney version. Almost no one is given a name in Perrault’s story and the “aged fairy” (who bestows her ‘gift’ after 6 of the 7 young fairies do) leaves after cursing the young princess. The princess is then awoken a little over halfway in the story and later finds herself and her children at the wrong end of a cannibalistic plot by her beloved prince’s mother, the ogress queen. But, I digress…

My first gripe came early on with the names of the three monochromatic [Disney] fairy protectors – something like Flitwhistle, Snodgrass & Pumpernickel (I’m not going to look them up). I guess this was done in order to say “look how different we are” but then why keep all other names the same? King Stefan, Prince Phillip, Aurora, & Maleficent are all well-known and re-used here. Flora, Fauna & Merryweather may not be as well known but certainly easier for kids to remember than what they came up with. But this was just the first 5 minutes and I was nitpicking.

BEGIN SPOILERS

These fairies live in the Moors with Maleficent and look up to her as a protector. Fast forward with me to the christening of the new princess and somehow these three are invited to the castle. Wait, wasn’t it established that the lands were at war and that humans and fairy folk don’t intermingle?

No matter, Maleficent arrives to crash the party right on cue – which is to say, before the last “good” fairy can bestow her gift. In every version of the story the last fairy’s gift/wish is used to lessen the curse used by the old/evil fairy. However, here Maleficent lessens the sting herself! She agrees to the beauty and grace previously bestowed and only curses the child to a “sleep like death” forever but which can be awakened by true love’s kiss. Yes, Maleficent, the scorned evil incarnate, doesn’t curse the child to death but only sleep and then leaves her an out.

The chinks in the armor were beginning to show too much here and it became easy to guess what would happen just by doing the complete opposite of what the animated film did. The fairies take the princess to hide her in the woods, but are completely incapable of raising a child, so who actually takes care of her behind the scenes? Why Maleficent, of course, who finds out their plan about 30 seconds after they leave the castle.

Who wakes the child from the sleep like death (which lasts an hour at most, so it’s really more of a nap)? Sorry Prince Phillip, this movie’s not about you. And what worked so great for Frozen must be continually done over and over.

Who changes into a dragon at the end? Certainly not Angelina Jolie! She’s got to wear this leather catwoman-like getup at the end. Wait, what? No, I’m not kidding.

Who gets killed at the end to bring peace to the land? Not the titular ‘evil’ character, that’s for sure, because it wasn’t her fault that she lost her temper for a little while and cursed an innocent baby. She’s all better now.

The CGI characters in fairyland are superfluous, but the enhanced crow character (Sam Riley as Diaval) is a real revelation (in addition to Jolie’s Maleficent). His indentured servant relationship with Maleficent is a good source of emotion and comedy along with her love/hate relationship with the princess. The scenes between Maleficent and Aurora at various ages are well done. A welcome joy in this otherwise dull affair. Elle Fanning is enduringly charming and her relationship with Jolie’s Maleficent is wholly believable to the point of where you do root for them to join forces (so to speak).

You can say that I’m too married to the original Sleeping Beauty or stories it’s based on and that’s fair. Completely on its own, Maleficent may have stood as a fractured fairy tale reimagined. This was set up, however, as the full story behind one of Disney’s most notorious villains and so was always wed, for better or worse, to that 1959 animated feature. Writer Linda Woolverton and director Robert Stromberg tried to have things both ways and wound up succeeding at neither. And how they changed Stefan is nothing short of barbaric.

My grade for Maleficent: C-, with positives only for Maleficent, Diaval, and their interactions with Aurora.

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