Put succinctly, Maleficent is Disney’s Man of Steel.
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
The most curious aspect about the release of Disney’s live action feature Maleficent, directed by first time director Robert Stromberg and starring Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones with supporting assist by Angelina Jolie, is the missed opportunity of rereleasing 1959’s Sleeping Beauty on DVD. Upon viewing the movie, it is crystal clear why the action did not take place. Clearly, Disney has jumped upon the revisionist bandwagon to such an extent that it has employed that most insulting and lazy of fictional tropes: Everything you know is WRONG.
Given the Maleficent’s character design (as well as that of the castle) and the fact the film carries the distinction of being Disney, there’s a reasonable inference that the film was to tell the story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth. The studio subverts its own 1959 animated presentation to such an extent it is barely recognizable, turning one of the most (if not the most) deliciously, unrepentant villains in Disney’s Pantheon of Evil into a vengeful but sympathetic anti-heroine; one barely recognizable from the source material. Now, the 1959 film is by no means 100% faithful to its source material either (with permutations too long to summarize here), but this is a unique take in that Disney is revising its own "history"; interesting, if not satisfying.
In this retelling, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy (pre-teen); Ella Purnell (teen); Angelina Jolie (adult)) is reimagined as a good fairy that protects the kingdom known as “The Moors”, a land that is populated by fantastical, supernatural beings that abuts a human kingdom in an uneasy truce. When young Maleficent is called upon to see to a thieving human boy Stefan (Michael Higgins (pre-teen); Jackson Bews (Teen); Sharlto Copley (adult)) who has trespassed into the “The Moors”, they strike up an unlikely friendship that becomes something more. Upon adulthood, Copley betrays her in his quest to become king. Violated and disillusioned, Maleficent becomes vengeful, hard, and aloof. Years later, when the married King Stefan presents his daughter Aurora, the uninvited Maleficent arrives to invoke the infamous sleeping curse, albeit in circumstances altered from the original Disney film.
Most everyone knows the story of “Sleeping Beauty” (at least, the Disney cinematic version). But here, this is less a fairy tale for adults and more of a study of cultural inversion. There has been a trend since the early 90s in pop culture media to have the hero become the villain and vice versa. Both Wicked and Oz: The Great and Powerful show the Wicked Witch of the West in a more sympathetic light. In the world of comics, both Doctor Octopus and Lex Luthor have supplanted their respective super-heroic foes by becoming effective heroes in their own right. Both the Dark Lords of the night and the Sith have become tragic pawns in the name of love, with Van Helsing and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively, represented as unsympathetic antagonists. General Zod isn’t “bad”, he was just, to borrow from Lady Gaga, born that way, etc. Regardless, the above-mentioned characters retain their now-somewhat-muted villainy. Maleficent goes one step further. She herself is completely reimagined to such an extent that she goes from “villain” to “violated victim” and “anti-hero”, bringing a logical (and in the wake of the recent events in Santa Barbara, California, a decidedly uncomfortable) justification for her actions, and it changes the story into something other than “Sleeping Beauty”. The names remain the same, but the characters and motivations are so different as to render them practically unrecognizable; that it could have conceivably been its own story without affiliation to the source story. It further pushes a theme introduced in Disney’s latest animated release, Frozen, regarding the notion that a “one true love” does not necessarily mean romantic love. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day with this film regarding the advancement of hidden agendas, given how some of the characterizations play out.
The question remains as to whether or not Maleficent is a good film on its own merits. The answer is, like so many other recent films, it's a lustrous moving painting that reveals its flaws upon further scrutiny; a mixed bag as a film proper. The story penned by no less than seven credited screenwriters, which gives credence to the old adage of “too many cooks.” For example, a few events that take place within the story, including the climax, requires the viewer to fill in a few blanks for themselves from inference without providing sufficient pre-established cues to justify them (an example involves a Deux Ex Machina in the climax).
It's not hyperbole to say that without Angelina Jolie there would be no live-action Maleficent. While her physical disposition makes her the perfect actress, it is her innate intelligence and bearing that make it work. As the pre-betrayed Malificent she is serviceable. It's when the character goes to the dark side that she allows herself to gleefully relish the role with dry, witty, cheeky acerbity. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and it's only near the end where she raids Michelle Pffeiffer's fetish closet does her performance hit a sour note. In truth, she is really the only reason to watch this film; she manages to make the incongruous motivations of the character plausibly work. It's certainly not for the slipshod special effects. Half the time they're a work of picturesque artistry. Others, the digital effects are so cheesily obvious (even in 2D) it's a wonder how the Disney studio allowed its name to be attached to the project; most egregiously with the three fairy godmothers, all of whom look like Gollum's little sisters. Instead of magical, the CGI renders them grotesquely.
Elle Fanning is sufficiently beguiling as Aurora, the unwitting pawn in the film's game of vengeance. She's acts as quasi-foil for the titular character and manages to build a credible relationship with her. It’s their revamped relationship that becomes the focal point of the film. While the onus of the burden of the film’s carriage falls on Jolie’s shoulders, Fanning assists in carrying the weight quite nicely.
Sharito Coplay, as King Stefan, manages to lose all the crazy charm he displayed in The A-Team for just plain crazy. His performance is disjointedly interesting, if bordering on one-note, as it’s left for the viewer (again, via inference) if his descent into madness is due to conscience, fear, or both. His performance is inconsistent and perhaps that was the intent. However, like the story beats, the relationship dynamics are filled in by the viewer via inference. Unfortunately, this compromises the dynamics between protagonist and antagonist so that when they finally, inevitably meet in the climax, the result is not as satisfying as it should have been.
The less said about Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple as the ersatz “Fairy Godmothers”, the better.
Special note must be made to actor Sam Riley who plays the anamorphic Diaval, who provides a much needed balance and reason to the film. Given all the subtextual misogyny the majority of the male characters portray in this film, he provides the one example that, gosh darn it, not all guys are bad (but then, it’s an easily obviated argument given that Diaval is a crow transformed into a man, not vice versa, and thus a magical creature, not a true man). Actor Brenton Thwaites is just window dressing as the ineffectual Prince Phillip.
James Newton Howard's score tries to be a mix of Disney Classic and vintage Williams and it works for the film, even if there isn't one particular melody which stands out.
The film will undoubtedly be a hit and does have a few things going for it. It’s a lush production with a strong feminist foundation and does provide positive messages regarding true love and strength of character. Yet it would have been more risky, daring, and interesting to portray Maleficent as the character in the original Sleeping Beauty. However, here Disney plays it safe, leading to a transmogrification of character that defangs Maleficent both in film and in person. In trying to explain the magic, the producers have done nothing but totally undermine it.