Taking a beloved fairy tale and altering it to create a fresh idea isn’t a new thing. When done correctly (as with ABC’s Once Upon A Time), we get an entertaining ride dripping with an originality that builds on the source material while respecting its roots. When it’s done poorly (as with 2011’s Red Riding Hood), we get a plodding attempt at delivering a unique vision that fails because the filmmakers forget to include any of the charm and joy that we all once fell in love with. With Maleficent, Disney’s newest “re-imagining” of their very own Sleeping Beauty (an adaptation of the tale, “Little Briar Rose,” by the Brothers Grimm, which was itself an adaptation of the French fairy tale, La Belle au bois dormant), I was hoping for the former, but found it closer to the latter in both execution and its lack of creative excitement.
Let’s get this out up front: Angelina Jolie is fantastic as Maleficent… at least when she’s playing the darker side of her. With her twisted horns and the overly accentuated sharpness of her cheekbones, Jolie exudes a villainy that sings with the malevolence we have come to expect. But when she attempts to play on the motherly aspects of the character, it comes off a bit wooden. She attempts to provoke an emotional template between her and Aurora (Elle Fanning), but when looking in her eyes, she is emotionless and distanced. There is a reason for this, as her trust of humans has been forever tarnished by the incidents of her past. The thing is, the screenplay (written by Linda Woolverton) spends the first act filling us in on this part of Maleficent’s life without exploring who she really is.
Maleficent, it turns out, is a fairy who lives a carefree life with all of her magical woodland creatures. The humans are frightened of these creatures, but there is peace between them. When a young boy, Stefan, decides to venture into the woods, Maleficent grows to love him, only to be abandoned in favor of his desire to become king. In his lust for power, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), returns to the woods claiming to want to rekindle their love, but instead strips her of her wings. From there, Maleficent’s heart crumbles, perpetuating the archaic cliché that a bad break-up will turn any woman evil.
The transition from being pure love to overtly evil happens way too fast, with no reaction from anyone or anything that Maleficent once loved and cared for, including the trio of fairies who will eventually watch over Aurora. It’s as if nothing changed, even though everything has. From that point on, Maleficent is represented as both protagonist and antagonist, as everyone else is relegated to pawns in her own personal chess game. Which would have been fine, had any of the supporting players been developed beyond their base level characteristics. Stefan is an egotistical pompous prick, Aurora is all smiles and happiness, and the trio of sprites that watch over her (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) are dimwitted twits. Nothing more.
Because of this, it’s hard to identify with any of the character’s motivations. The filmmakers want to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty through the eyes of Maleficent, but by doing so, it naturally wants to be as much Aurora’s story as it does Maleficent’s. But the filmmakers try very hard to force Aurora into minor character status, which in and of itself suppresses the overall connection that needs to develop between Maleficent and Aurora to form the mother/daughter connection that is ultimately the backbone of the film. It all leads to a lackluster finale that have no ramifications for what happens or decisions that are made because, well… it needs to end.
Unless the filmmakers had chosen to develop a story about Maleficent prior to the events in Sleeping Beauty, the structure of the film should have been set up differently in order to bring the nuances of Maleficent’s character out more organically. One key scene in the film that works brilliantly (and one that I wish the rest of the film would have emulated), was a moment most everyone is familiar with. When Maleficent arrives to Aurora’s birthday celebration, it’s flashy and exciting. Jolie gives her all in this scene without going over the top and the overall emotion of the film is at its peak.
If this scene would have led the film, perhaps after a few short scenes of the birth and a hidden — or shadowed — Maleficent, the filmmakers would have been able to establish all of the major characters and scare the bejesus out of us, all the while setting up a baseline for a clear and resonant transformation. This would have opened the door to allow the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent to blossom the way it should have, as Maleficent tells the child of her past and explains the reasons behind her wickedness. The simple act of seeing Maleficent as her evil self before we see the purity she once embodied would have given us a far more compelling reason to care for and believe in her fall and possible redemption.
At least the effects were generally well-done. I say generally because, overall, they were flawless, especially anything involving Maleficent’s magic and the transformation of her pet crow into a human (as well as other animals). But it seems they either ran out of time or gave up on developing the fairy nannies, who all look like oversized flying bobbleheads. It was better when they altered themselves into human form to blend in, however, it was hard to connect to them otherwise because of how awkwardly fake they were.
Then there are the changes. I realize that a story like this will have major twists to make it unique, and though I was fine with giving Maleficent wings, or adding a moment that Once Upon A Time executed so much better (twice!), there are just some changes that automatically disrespects the source material. In regards to the fairies, Disney’s idea was to give each one of them a color to not only distinguish them physically, but to signify their personalities as well. There’s nothing better than the fairies constant color wars in Sleeping Beauty. But halfway through Maleficent, the green fairy loses her green palette for no reason whatsoever. They should have been more careful and made sure that she at least represented green in some way throughout. And, I don’t care who you are — you do not change the fact that Maleficent transforms into a dragon! You just don’t.
In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is nothing but pure evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. So to add more depth to her character with a genuinely heartbreaking back story was a fantastic idea — at least on paper. However, the filmmaker’s could have used some of Maleficent’s magic touch, as they seemed to forget to include much in the actual film, leaving us with more of a bland reenactment than a fresh, kinetic update.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Edge of Tomorrow and The Fault In Our Stars. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.