First, I’m not thrilled with the live-action remake of animated classics trend, most notably Disney classics. I’m warning you now that Cinderella comes out next March with Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. Second, I’m also not thrilled with changing the story for marketing sake. In the case of Maleficent, Disney went for a better reaction, especially amongst parents and children, by making her “good” instead of evil. She is still a devil and exercises said deviltry to deadly measures, but it’s mainly in re-action instead of action. Still, her softer side feels “wrong” because now we have to wonder about Maleficent’s “lifestyle,” so to speak. She has always been the most villainous of the Disney villains, and now that’s been hit with a monkey wrench. Regardless of those complaints and taken on its own merit, Maleficent was better than I expected, which is relative to how bad I had expected it to be.
Young Maleficent (Ella Purnell) is a fairy with amazing wings, a loving heart, and fabulous green eyes. She lives in The Moors, and enchanted land without any leader, just camaraderie, peace, and respect among creatures ranging from frog-like blobs to vine-like guardians, from things that crawl to things that both swim and fly. She is alerted to the border of their kingdom one day when a human is found stealing gems from the water. The human is a boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) who returns the gem and falls in love with Maleficent. After enough years together that they are both adults, older Stefan (Sharlto Copley) leaves and does not return for a long time. He had hoped to become king but instead was a servant for the ruler of a neighboring kingdom. He never loses his desire to be king, however.
King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) has wondered for years what horrible things lay hidden in The Moors. He leads an army to invade what he perceives is his rival, when in reality the people of The Moors are just living peacefully without bothering anyone. It bothered me greatly that Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), while defending The Moors with great but justifiable wrath, never tried to explain that to King Henry. Instead, she and a collection of brilliant, deadly creatures slaughter those who do not retreat. Years later, as Henry approaches death and wishes to name a successor, he opines for having never defeated the winged and deadly Maleficent. This gives Stefan an idea.
He returns to Maleficent, warning her of King Henry’s intentions to vanquish her, but Stefan also – well – normally something that happens this early in a story is not a spoiler, but it was so vicious and unexpected that I’m going to consider it spoiler material. For his efforts, Stefan is named successor to King Henry, takes a queen, and eventually has a daughter named Aurora.
As in the Disney version, Maleficent is not invited to the celebration but appears anyway in order to place a curse on the baby, damning her to fall into an undead sleep before sunset on her 16th birthday to be awakened only by “true love’s kiss.” That is when the king and queen send the baby into the woods under the protection of three fairies to keep Aurora hidden until she has beaten the curse. We know how that turns out 16 years later because both this and the Disney classic are that same in that respect. Different, however, is what happens in Aurora’s years from birth up until her fateful finger prick on the spinning wheel. Instead of Maleficent spending 15 years, 364 days trying to find Aurora, she sees where the baby is right from the start. While having every opportunity to dispose of the darling child, she not only keeps tabs on her but develops a relationship that is rather friendly – until it is time for the curse to present itself at someone’s Sweet 16 moment.
I can admit when I might prejudge something, and I can admit when I am wrong. Unfortunately, Jolie was flawless. Her makeup, the strange facial structure, even her simple but labored strut was perfect. So why did I say unfortunately? Because I don’t like these live-action remakes intended to simply capitalize on a built-in audience. Also unfortunately, Jolie was about the only thing that was flawless. The terrain of The Moors was comparable to Avatar and good enough. The creatures there ranged from fabulous to stupid. The guardians, made of vines and branches, were the best CGI creatures I’ve seen since Return of the King. Other creatures were no better than Fraggle Rock.
Also not flawless was the direction by Robert Stromberg in his directorial debut. There were occasional touches of humor that, while funny on their own, ruined the evil feel of the film. I had to wonder if I were really supposed to laugh with so much morbidity surrounding the chuckles which were chuckle-worthy but misplaced. There were defenses around the castle designed to exploit a weakness in all fairies, including the Big M, but she avoided those defenses too easily. They clearly could have been built with half the effort and twice the effectiveness. Fanning (Super 8, Benjamin Button) was better than adequate as Aurora, but this film wasn’t so much about her as it was her predator. A small thing that bothered me was Fanning’s eyebrows. No, really. They bleached her hair just fine, but they left her with dark eyebrows that made her look manly. Would it have killed them to blot a little more blonde on her? Would have been nice.
The biggest problem I had with the story was the narrative itself. It is told in pieces, shifting forward and backward at such a rate that it seemed the entire first half was backstory and left me never really sure when the real story was going to kick into gear. The backstory was important and entertaining – but it was still backstory and left me feeling as if my tires were spinning and I wasn’t going anywhere.
The three fairies, this time not called Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, were as annoying as hell and I wished for something to eat them, but it didn’t happen. As for Prince Charming, he shows up as expected but seems more of a caricature of a boy-band member than a prince in a dark fairytale. He does his job, shows up when needed, kisses the sleeping Aurora on cue, and that’s all I will say about that because that part of the story is downplayed compared to everything else. I can offer two small things about “true love’s kiss”: 1. It doesn’t go quite as expected and 2. I called it about a minute before it happened. You can ask my kid, but she won’t be happy to admit I was right.
Maleficent greatly twists the story of Sleeping Beauty as we know it. Of those twists, several were great, and several fell flat. However, the great was good enough to make the whole she-bang worth seeing. When she takes flight, especially during a fight with King Stefan’s soldiers, it’s deadly beautiful. Young Maleficent is as sweet as candy, and adult Maleficent is as sour as a poisoned lemon, but together they are the reasons to buy a ticket.
The Great: Jolie. There, I said it.
The Good: Unexpected changes in the story
The Ugly: Stupid little fairies with misplaced laughs