Maleficent is the latest example of taking a well-known story and looking at it from a different perspective. Drew Barrymore did it in 1998 with Ever After, a realistic take on Cinderella, while the musical Wicked puts a different spin on Frank L. Baum’s Oz stories in live theaters all over the world now. Last year’s Oz, The Great and Powerful did that as well. With Maleficent, the different perspective is based in motivation.
In the 1959 Disney animation classic, the only motivation given for Maleficent’s cursing of Princess Aurora is that she wasn’t invited to the party – definitely a case of anger management issues. Audiences accepted it unquestioningly, mostly because of the way Maleficent was drawn. She looked so evil it was understandable – even expected. The horns, the black gown, the cheekbones that could cut paper; it plays upon the audience’s visual prejudices so they know she’s B-A-D. As Jessica Rabbit said, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.”
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton knows about animation, having written both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Scar in The Lion King could be an uncle of the animated Maleficent with the way he looks and his smooth voice. For Maleficent, though, Woolverton draws on the lesson of Beauty and the Beast – looks are deceiving. She creates a full backstory that begins during Maleficent’s childhood. There are two lands that exist side by side but who are in conflict – one the land of men, the other one called the Moors, the province of wondrous creatures. It works as a metaphor as well as a geographical description. In the Moors, the young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) is a benevolent protector of the realm. When Stefan (Michael Higgins), a young boy from the kingdom, trespasses in the Moors looking for treasure, Maleficent forgives him and the two become close friends for years. He awakens feelings of love within the teenaged Maleficent, but then Stephan returns to the world of men.
Years later the adult Stephan (Sharlto Copley) is a page for the king when the sovereign decides to invade the Moor and gain control of its wealth. He marches his army up to the border, but there the adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and an army of Moor creatures make their stand and rout the army. Maleficent soars through the battle on her wings and personally defeats the king. When the injured king offers his crown to whoever will destroy Maleficent, Stephan returns to the woods. While he can’t kill her, he does maim her, and then collects his reward, including the hand of the King’s daughter.
From the christening scene on, the film almost recreates scenes from the ’59 version, even the green haze during enchantments. You have the trio of pixies who raise Princess Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple), and the handsome prince (Brenton Thwaites) who finds Aurora in the woods shortly before her 16th birthday. But Woolverton makes Maleficent an active player who watches over Aurora as she grows from baby to toddler (played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) to beautiful teenager (Elle Fanning). She also gives Maleficent’s crow Diaval a human version (played by Sam Riley).
Jolie handles “evil” side of her character with a light touch that’s wonderful to behold, but her interplay with Fanning is beautiful in the depth of conflicted emotion. Fanning has stepped out of big sister Dakota’s shadow and is now a powerhouse performer in her own right. This movie passes the Bechdel test on gender bias with flying colors. (The test is that a work must have two women who talk to each other about something besides a man; in the course of a year there aren’t many major movies that pass it.)
It’s hard to tell that this is the first directing assignment for Robert Stromberg, although he’s done over 90 films in the visual effects department and has won two Oscars for art direction (for Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). The visuals for the film are stunning, but they serve the story rather than overwhelming it.
During the end credits there’s a melancholic version of “Once Upon A Dream” from the animated movie, performed by Lana Del Ray. The video combines footage from both films and provides an interesting comparison of the styles.
Over the course of its history, Disney has done much to perpetuate the idea of romantic “true love” as the goal for young women, which has skewed many a person’s understanding of love. Now they appear to be correcting the perception, both earlier this year with Frozen and now with Maleficent. It’s good to see this trend developing, and hopefully it will continue.