As a lover of traditional fantasy and fairy tales, I was intrigued by the prospect of Disney’s newest film Maleficent. Simultaneously, I also had fairly low expectations of it. After all, re-imagined Hollywood blockbuster versions of classic fairy tales are a subgenre on the rise and previous entries have certainly entertained me, but failed to light a real spark in my response (Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack The Giant Slayer). So I went to Maleficent expecting it to be a fairly enjoyable fantasy adventure like those other films were to me. To my surprise and delight, the film not only far exceeded my expectations, but actually turned out to be one of my favourites in a long time.
Maleficent is an alternative take on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, drawing on the superb animated Disney version but at the same time offering a completely different version of the story. This is, according to the narrator who opens and closes the film, what really happened. It is the story told from the viewpoint of Maleficent, known to all as the evil fairy who curses the princess. In this version, we get to meet her up close and learn why she did what she did and why she’s actually a very relatable and humane character and not simply a villain. I suppose she’s a bit of an Anakin Skywalker.
To me, this was one of the most gorgeous-looking special effects films in recent memory. In the beginning of the movie, we get to know Maleficent as a child in her natural habitat, the magical kingdom of The Moors. The designers who created this really understood what makes such an environment work. It’s a vibrant, sprawling universe of pixies and goblins where surprises lurk behind every tree, while at the same time it’s deeply grounded in nature. Later on, this organic environment turns dark, but it still retains an ethereal beauty. The human world feels more toned down, but it’s not a jarring contrast. In fact, the kingdom’s castle is quite beautiful in its own right.
To compare with a recent release, Snow White & The Huntsman was also a very beautiful-looking film, which, like Maleficent, managed to delve a bit deeper into the characters it was about, but what that film didn’t really understand as well about fairy tales is that a huge part of their magic actually comes from their morality. A great fairy tale contains a great moral lesson. This is something Maleficent does take to heart and it makes it a much more poignant and powerful film. In fact, there are several moral themes to be found in the film. One of them is moral redemption. This is an important theme that’s welcome in today’s society, where we like to think of those on the other side of things as inherently and irrevocably evil. Another theme in the film has to do with the meaning of true love. That may sound incredibly worn and cliché, but this film actually deals with it without any whinging, preaching or cheesiness. It’s impossible not to mention another very recent Disney film that turns out to have the same idea, but doing so means spoiling the plot to some extent. If you’ve seen both films, you’ll know which one I mean, and in my opinion, Maleficent manages to say the same thing in a much better way. This is because Maleficent doesn’t contrast true love with simple evil, but rather with the budding of a love that actually may yet become true love. That simple fact makes the message much more powerful and meaningful in my opinion.
I’ve never been a big fan of Angelina Jolie’s, whom I always thought of as having a fairly cold and distant sort of charisma. In Maleficent, it’s actually this quality of hers that makes her so suited to the part, but more surprisingly, she also manages to convey a subtle sense of vulnerability and soft edges to an otherwise hard persona, which makes her performance very rounded. Elle Fanning plays Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, and really evokes the genuine radiance and sunniness you expect from that character. This is another area where the film contrasts with Snow White and The Huntsman, where Kristen Stewart felt painfully miscast. Elle Fanning actually feels like the kind of girl animals would flock to in adoration. I also liked the fact that both Aurora and the prince really looked and felt like very young people, as they should. They portray the innocence that these characters are all about.
I was surprised to find out that this film was the directing debut effort Robert Stromberg, whose career so far has always been in special effects. Unlike Empire magazine, I don’t feel at all that he directed it like a special effects guy, but really upholds the story and the characters throughout the film. The acting is great and the pacing is solid, as well. What did not surprise me was that the screenplay was written by Linda Woolverton, whose work on Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast and Mulan was entirely in the same vein as this one.
I also really loved James Newton Howard’s score, which portrayed a thematic richness and an appropriate sense of subtlety at the same time. The only part that made me scratch my head was Lana Del Rey’s unnecessarily dark and disturbing rendition of Once Upon A Dream in the end credits, which felt more like Requiem for a Dream.
Films such as Maleficent and The Hobbit really hearten me because they prove that there are still big films being made that understand fantasy in the same way I do. Many sophisticated people today feel that stories, even fantasy, should be complex and have all kinds of sociological and political layers. I think that fantasy is a genre that manages to remind us of universal truths more convincingly than other stories do, in part because there is a beautiful simplicity to them. As Maleficent shows, this has nothing to do with black and white morality, but with straight and honest storytelling without a hint of cynicism.
P.S.: I think this trailer shows far too much of the film, but other than that it is a good trailer: