I had a rather disturbing thought as I left the promo screening for Disney's latest attempt at re-imagining its most beloved fantasies in a way that empowers young women rather than treats them merely as subjects to be desired, rescued, or possessed as was so often the case both culturally and in early Disney history.
Are you ready?
If Disney were to remake I Spit On Your Grave, I have a feeling it would look a lot like Maleficent.
It's hard to imagine a woman, or fairy, more scorned and violated than is Disney's Maleficent, beloved in cinematic history as the evil villain who put the curse on Sleeping Beauty. In Maleficent, you get a stronger sense of who she is and exactly what created her villainry, an approach that will likely irritate many Disney purists while also capturing the imagination of many of Disney's newer and younger fans.
The film starts off with a younger and more innocent and free Maleficent (played by Isobelle Malloy) who is content living in the world of the fairies while avoiding the far less appealing world of the humans. One day, a young Stefan (Michael Higgins) crosses the boundary that divides the two worlds and encounters the free-spirited Maleficent. As time moves forward, their friendship blossoms into more until, one day, it seems that Stefan goes away and becomes distracted by his greed and lust for power.
Then, as a young man (now played by Sharlto Copley) he returns with an undisclosed agenda as he has worked his way into the King's inner circle and learned that the King shall name his successor to be the one who is able to successfully kill the fairy who had severely wounded him in battle and destroyed his army.
As the story goes, Stefan actually cannot bring himself to actually commit such an act yet the act he does commit is, perhaps for a fairy, an even greater violation and it is an act that does not occur without retribution. Maleficent, now having been harmed beyond that which is forgivable, places "the curse" for which we all know her on an unaware infant named Aurora, the daughter of the King and his wife. The King, proving unfit to be a king, opts to send Aurora off to the woods to be raised by three frightfully inept pixies until her 16th birthday.
As has been fairly well publicized, Aurora as a five-year-old is played by Jolie's real life daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, an adorable child whose presence fits the Aurora persona perfectly and whom I'm willing to admit was one of the few five-year-olds to be found who wouldn't be afraid of Jolie in her Maleficent costuming. It isn't long, of course, until Maleficent begins to intervene more and more on Aurora's behalf in ways big and small.
The story, written by one of Disney's regular writers Linda Woolverton, winds its way through the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, played as a teenager by Elle Fanning.
There will certainly be those who disagree with a more empathetic approach to a character who has been recognized solely as a villain for years, and while there's no question that it's the story that ultimately does hold this film back, Maleficent does a fairly good job at balancing everything you've always known about Maleficent while also creating a more complex and satisfying character.
It helps, of course, to have Angelina Jolie as Maleficent. There are very few times where I watch a film and think to myself "I can't imagine anyone else playing that part," but this is definitely one of those occasions. Jolie is mesmerizing whether she's being strong and vengeful or vulnerable and deeply feeling. She's so convincing at portraying a more complete Maleficent that you may find yourself being slightly irritated at how much you're buying into the performance.
Elle Fanning, who seems to have made a career out of giving really good performances in criminally underseen indies, captures all the wonder and innocence of the magical Aurora, though her doe-eyed wanderlust may be just a bit too much for some folks. I found it enchanting, which is precisely the feeling I wanted from it all.
On the flip side, Sharlto Copley's greatest moments are when he's descending into madness while his feeble attempts at actual humanity are a reminder that he has yet to impress since District 9.
Director Robert Stromberg, a visual effects guy from such films as Alice in Wonderland, seems an odd pick as a first-time feature director on a film of this magnitude. He's overly reliant on CGI, which is frequently less than impressive, and the 3-D conversion is a complete disappointment. The three ditzy pixies are given such a bad CGI job that I started to think maybe I'd stumbled into an M. Night film. Stromberg, while smartly keeping the film running at a decent clip and lasting only 97 minutes, allows the pace to drop at times and hasn't quite mastered the sense of timing and framing for scenes.
If you are an Angelina Jolie fan, you will likely be overjoyed with Maleficent, a flawed film yet a film that allows the actress to give one of her most memorable performances to date and, perhaps, to have brought to life an iconic character and performance that will last for years to come. As I left the theater after the promo screening, I found myself feeling like Maleficent was a very middle-of-the-road film. I noticed, however, the next day I was still thinking about the words, the images, and about Maleficent herself.
Sometimes, I suppose, it can be said that one must look a little bit deeper and past all the flaws to find the beauty that, just perhaps, sleeps within us all.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic