Directed by Robert Stromberg. Starring Angelina Jolie, Juno Temple, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, India Eisley, Miranda Richardson, Brenton Thwaites, Imelda Staunton, Sam Riley, Peter Capaldi, Lesley Manville, Julian Seager, Marama Corlett, Hermione Corfield, Leo Suter, Hannah New. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on the stories “La Belle au bois dormant” by Charles Perrault and “Little Briar Rose” by the Brothers Grimm, and Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” written by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright & Milt Banta.
Note: Maleficent is screening in both Czech-dubbed and English-language versions in Prague cinemas. Check showtimes before heading out to the cinema.
A striking, sultry movie-star performance by Angelina Jolie anchors Disney’s Maleficent, a CGI-infused take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale that purports to spin the story on its head by telling it from the point of view of its chief villain, the titular evil queen who curses an infant princess on the day she’s born.
No, Maleficent doesn’t exactly spin this story on its head – by the end, I was disappointed at how many formulaic tropes had been crossed off the list – but it does present, at least, an interesting take on the material. It also isn’t afraid to take chances, while sticking relatively close to the original fairy tale conception (but particularly the 1955 animated Disney version).
And then there’s Jolie, a live-action cartoon version of the ’55 Maleficent, decked out under a Rick Baker creature design that gives her warped horns atop her head and those sharp, high cheekbones that look freakishly unnatural. The makeup effects seem to waver from scene-to-scene, sometimes giving the actress a waxy CGI completion, other times a Rocky Dennis-like disorder.
But nevermind the makeup: underneath it all is an effortlessly confident femme fatale performance from Jolie that commands the screen and wraps us up in her spell. We don’t get many female lead performances like this anymore, but Jolie flaunts a chilly-cool grace and sexy-sultry style that brings back memories of a Barbara Stanwyck or a Rita Hayworth.
If only the rest of the movie could match its impassioned central performance. Maleficent seems like it’s in trouble when it opens in an overbearingly CGI-ified forest world full of fairies and tree monsters and pixie dust and all manner of weird blobby creatures that serve as little more than Roger Rabbit cartoon distractions.
And, of course, there’s the voiceover narration that sets out everything for us in explicit detail: the young fairy Maleficent, who lives in this fantasy forest world, falls in love with a human prince from the neighboring human kingdom. The prince eventually betrays her, an evil witch is born, and the once-cheerful forest falls under her dark spell.
Talk about dark: this film gets there in a hurry. Don’t be fooled by the PG rating: Maleficent features epic Lord of the Rings-style battle sequences as opposing armies run towards each other and tree monsters pick up men and sling them into the distance.
I was dismayed when one of these epic battles ended Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and a little relieved when Sam Raimi avoided the battle that Oz: The Great and Powerful had been building up to. The violence feels vaguely more at home when Maleficent gets dark, but still: do all these modern fairy tales, revisionist or otherwise, need to climax in bloody warfare?
Maleficent’s solid supporting cast includes Sharlto Copley as King Stefan, once the man who broke Maleficent’s heart; Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty), who unjustly bears the brunt of Maleficent’s curse; Sam Riley (Control) as the evil queen’s right-hand crow Diaval; and Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple as a trio of bumbling CGI fairies.
But they all fail to wrestle attention away from Jolie, who simply radiates in the central role. And despite the storytelling twist, Maleficent truly embraces it’s fairy tale origins – a vast improvement over 2012’s Snow White shakeups, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Hunstman. I cringed at only a couple of unnecessarily cliché moments, the ultimate fate of King Stefan and the appearance of a certain prince during the film’s final scene; but if you can forgive these and endless sea of CGI, Maleficent is a revisionist Wicked-style fairy tale that works.