Although widely compared to the 1959 animated Disney film Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a spectacular tale in its own right. After all, Sleeping Beauty was an adaptation, too.
French writer Charles Perrault first dreamt up La Belle au Bois Dormant, or the Beauty Sleeping in the Wood, in the late 1600s, with gothic fable writers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm adapting the story a century later.
Accolades must go to contemporary producer Joe Roth and director Robert Stromberg for creating a film based on a re-thought “what if” premise. Like the widely successful stage musical Wicked, Maleficent lifts the curtain on the title character’s inner-conflicts.
We first meet Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) not as an evil sorceress focused on death and destruction, but as a child (played by Isobelle Molloy). She’s an orphaned fairy who lives in the enchanted realm of the Moors, near a royal kingdom. She develops a bond with Stefan (Sharlto Copley), an orphaned boy from the kingdom, until he suddenly vanishes from her life.
When he returns, it is only to trick her – and Maleficent’s heart darkens when she learns of how he has benefited from his betrayal. When Stefan becomes king, marries and has a child, the vengeful fairy curses the infant princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Maleficent and her off-sider Diaval (Sam Riley), a crow that she can transform into a man, watch Aurora grow under the not-so-watchful care of three pixies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville). The character of Diaval is a brilliant addition to the ensemble, but the pixies disappear from the story for stretches of time, despite being Aurora’s guardians. This is just one vague aspect of the film likely to be noticed by audiences.
Predictably, Maleficent grows fond of Aurora, whose perpetual happiness etches away at her heart. Jolie brings a beautiful, conflicted dimension to her role in what is arguably her finest performance to date, while Fanning is effervescent as the princess, though the character of Aurora is rather two-dimensional.
Sharlto Copley is well cast as the enraged King Stefan, whose wonderfully dark final showdown with Maleficent warrants caution from the parents of younger viewers even though it is “Disney-style” violence.
Although this fable is flawed, its intensely female spin on a well-known story redeems it. Maleficent’s overall look alone (those cheekbones!) is a masterful work of art, no doubt thanks largely to multi-Oscar-winning make-up effects artist Rick Baker. There are many more reasons to see this large-scale fantasy thriller than not, including Lana Del Ray’s perfectly ethereal cover of “Once Upon a Dream” in the closing credits.
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