Make no mistake: Angelina Jolie is a megastar. She received a Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1999, early in her career. That put her in the company of such young up-and-comers as Mira Sorvino, Mercedes Ruehl and Marisa Tomei. Mostly, they’ve disappered into obscurity or occasional appearances in more lower profile movies. Fifteen years later, however, Angelina Jolie is still top billing in movies and packing viewers into theaters, and has three more on her calendar. Her latest release is a Disney film, Maleficent, and, at 39, she delivered them a $239M box office, as of September 14, 2014 (per IMDB).
The movie itself is no great shakes, but, in its own way, is as much fun as Jolie’s early film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (and probably Laura Croft but I didn’t see that). The tale is the “backstory”, if you will, about Maleficent, the evil witch from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and (to this viewer at any rate) their most recognizable villianess after Cruella De Ville in 1001 Dalmations. The concept is speculative fiction, similar to what Gregory Maguire does with the Wicked Witch in Wicked, Snow White in Mirror Mirror, and Cinderella in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. The idea is simple, though: take a minor character from a fable or fiction, and build another tale around that. Done well, the results can be quite satisfying.
And in Maleficent, the results are quite satisfying. We see a very carefully crafted world of magic (the Moors) adjacent to a human kingdom, set in the Middle Ages, with all its pomp and glory. But, of course, all is not easy, because the human King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) wants to conquer and destroy the Moors and its magical inhabitants. The Moors, of course, is led by Maleficent with wings and horns, and she almost gets the best of Henry and his men. Henry wants revenge and offers his kingdom to whomever kills her.
One man, Stephen (Sharlto Copley), takes him up on this offer. As a child, Stephen wandered into the Moors by accident and met the equally-young Maleficent. They bonded and enjoyed a budding romance, so he knows how to get close enough to her to do the deed.
And close he gets and gives her drugged wine. But, when he realizes that he must kill her, he can’t. Instead he cuts off her wings and leaves. He gets the kingdom and Maleficent recovers, discovers the treachery, and her pain, rage and fury cannot be contained.
Thus the stage is set for the rest of the tale. Writers Linda Woolverton and Charles Perrault draw on both the Grimm Brothers fairy tales, as well as the Disney version, and their efforts are quite laudable. We understand the rage which drives Maleficent to curse such an innocent child, and likewise, King Stephen’s desire to protect his daughter–and his guilt over his deed. If the plot feels formulaic, so be it. It’s just the classic mythic themes at play, of revenge, love, and redemption. And, to their credit, they also throw in some breathtakingly clever plot twists.
Woolverton and Perrault also turn loose some original characters: Diaval (Sam Riley), a crow Maleficent saves by making him a human, and who becomes her shapeshifter; and the three fairies. These are named Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple). Much like their their Flora, Fauna and Merriweather grandmothers, these three provide comic relief, and their fussing and bickering is very convincing as they become Aurora’s nurses and protectors. Director Robert Stromberg respects the script enough to allow these little moments to play out while also keeping a firm hand on the overall storyline.
Maleficent is not a four-star movie, but it is well above average. The whole production is well-thought and carefully built and the production design shows considerable imagination (especially if viewed in 3-D, as we did. The experience was well-worth coughing up the extra bucks). The overall feel was closer to Lord of the Rings than the original Sleeping Beauty (although I missed the latter’s Tchaikovsky-based score).
Even more, though, was the intelligence behind it, and the respect for that intelligence, and not because of the complex motivations of the characters. Here’s another: not all the beings in the Moors are cute and cuddly; some are ugly, and others are absolutely fearsome. But they’re all harmless, and that’s a lesson: looks aren’t everything. Elle Fanning, as Aurora, is more troublesome. She’s supposed to be lovely, innocent and sweet enough for everyone to fall in with (and they do), but Fanning’s stock response is a wide, almost goofy smile. Innocence? Or bad acting? Hard to say. She doesn’t get many dramatic scenes, but the relationship between her and Maleficent certainly feels convincing.
Disney deserves a lot of praise for this one, for their boldness in presenting such an intelligent and entertaining piece. And for risking a $100M+ film on a female character. Women are much stronger presences in films now, and Disney acknowledges that, and placed their trust in a certified megastar with a history of playing strong, brave women.
They trusted Angelina Jolie. She delivered. With Maleficent, everyone wins, especially the audience.