by Kathie Smith
Fairy tales have a timeless endurance, their moral and psychological relevance eluding the defining rigors of geographic or political zeitgeists. Their transformation from oral tradition to adult literary fantasy to watered-down children’s fare has always embraced the arena of popular entertainment. Robert Stromberg’s surprisingly engaging Maleficent follows this convention, using a very textured blueprint that takes cues from both the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney. An unabashed mix of humanity’s frightening darkness and sugarcoated potential for goodness, Maleficent is a potent parable wrapped in a special effects package that will make Godzilla jealous.
Director: Robert Stromberg
Producer: Joe Roth
Writers: Linda Woolverton, Charles Perrault (story)
Cinematographer: Dean Semler
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley, Kenneth Cranham
US Theatrical Release: May 30, 2014
US Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
With the objective of plucking Maleficent, the evil fairy thus named in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, from her one-dimensional wickedness, the film’s opening narration promises of “telling a story anew.” The tale begins with two kingdoms: one filled with people “like you and me” ruled by a king, and another, the Moors, with magical creatures who all trust one another without need for authority. In the Moors lives Maleficent, a young but bold winged girl who lives nestled in a tree. When a human boy named Stefan is found stealing gems from the Moors, Maleficent swoops in out of curiosity, first forcing him to return the gems then befriending him. Their friendship evolves into a teen courtship culminating in “true love’s kiss.”
As adults, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), as one of the strongest fairies, becomes the de facto leader of the Moors, and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) pursues his ambitions as servant to the king—a distraction that takes him away from Maleficent. Meanwhile, the aging king has set his sights on conquering the Moors and its many treasures, but when he arrives with his full army in tow, the magical beasts led by Maleficent stand their ground with a definitive defeat. Maleficent herself humiliates the king by knocking him from his horse, causing a torrent of wind with her powerful wings to repel his protective men, and vowing that the Moors will never bow to a king.
The King retreats with a need for revenge—not on the Moors, but on Maleficent—making a decree to his vassals (one of them Stefan) for the death of the “winged one” and promising great rewards. Stefan, who has turned into a blind opportunist, sees his chance to take the throne once and for all. Many years after he stopped visiting the Moors, Stefan returns with a heart full of malicious intent while he comforts Maleficent in his arms and serves her a potion that lulls her to sleep, but is unable to plunge his knife into her chest. He instead chooses an alternative method to steal her dignity and power while also pleasing his king: to cut off Maleficent’s wings.
At this moment, when Maleficent wakes both wounded and with her innocence stolen, this fairy tale sheds its Disney skin and plants its feet so firmly on the dark allegorical ground of the Brothers Grimm that it will send chills down your spine. The violent episode (which happens off-screen) is an all-too visceral moment of contemporary relevance, especially in light the misogyny grabbing headlines courtesy of Elliot Rodgers and Game of Thrones. Maleficent all of the sudden becomes an impetuous kindred spirit to Ms. 45’s Thana, harboring a desire for vengeance sown by unthinkable violations. The gravity of Maleficent’s eventual curse on the baby Aurora, Stefan’s child, takes on a weight far more profound than simply not being invited to a party.
Maleficent’s hatred casts a shadow over her idealistic home in the Moors and she assumes a far more subjugating role as leader. Stefan returns to the castle to present the wings to the King who, on his deathbed, names Stefan as his successor. Stefan’s victory is, of course, short lived; Maleficent’s curse on his first born daughter sends his life into peril. This is where Maleficent dovetails with the more familiar story of Sleeping Beauty, as Maleficent watches Aurora grow into a kindhearted beauty (played by Elle Fanning) whose charms even work on the cold heart of Maleficent. With her transforming crow Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent keeps tabs on Aurora, leading Aurora to believe that Maleficent is her godmother. Their relationship provides some offhanded humor that gives the movie some levity in order to emerge from its melancholic leanings.
Jolie could not have been more perfectly cast in this role. Although prosthetics were used to accentuate the angels of her face, nothing can mimic her alarmingly large Cheshire cat smile as she perfectly delivers sinister lines of revenge. Likewise, her sullen expression and large eyes are able to convey a temperament of either steely ferocity or soft resignation. Jolie will never be described as the most versatile actor (despite her Oscar-winning role in Girl, Interrupted), but her charisma is undeniably crucial in blockbuster fodder (such as this and Salt) that would otherwise be another mundane cog in the Hollywood machine.
Maleficent’s success (that is to say, its success in dodging categorization as another hollow, poorly-plotted, predictable summer movie) also resides in its visual opulence, adopting the fantasy ambience with detail and exuberance. Maleficent might be Stromberg’s directorial debut, but his visual effects resume tells a different story of expertise, having worked on films as varied as The Aviator, Pan’s Labyrinth, Ghost Rider, There Will Be Blood, and Avatar. Maleficent, however, does not have the feel of a special effects specialist going gonzo, and instead maintains a style that seems carefully polished and appropriately catered to the subject without suffocating it. Maleficent’s purposeful stride to the castle upon the birth of baby Aurora, her hatred and anger a force that blows apart stone walls, casts an iconic atmosphere on both her character and her psyche.
Maleficent charges towards a somewhat predetermined finale, but also stays true to the pledge of telling an old story anew with subtle innovation. The result is an above-par movie completely contradicting its below-par expectations. From first glace, a Disney rehash filled with stars reads like nothing more than a money grab. Quite the contrary, Maleficent represents a unique entry in a lasting custom of storytelling reverie—imaginative, unpredictable, and absorbing. Stromberg and scriptwriter Linda Woolverton (something of a committed pen-for-hire at Disney) take far more risks in their adaptation than one would ever expect, not only for infusing themes of rape-revenge but also for redefining storybook love as something far more platonic. The lesson of this fairy tale? Embrace pleasant surprises, especially the ones with big-budgets—they’re as rare as the exotic creatures of the Moors.