From prehistoric cave paintings through the Epic of Gilgamesh and on to Harry Potter, the history of humanity is the history of storytelling, allowing communication between generations, defining concepts of good and evil, passing our own experiences to our children and shaping their minds. But in truth we live in a world of shades of grey, where ambiguity is more common than the comforting black and white too often presented to children, and the increasing sophistication of modern audiences must reflect that complexity.
Maleficent, the directorial debut of former special effects artist Robert Stromberg, like the recent Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Slayer is a modern reinterpretation of a classic fairytale, here Sleeping Beauty told from the perspective of the titular faerie, explaining why her heart is filled with darkness, though starting from a very traditional opening…
Once upon a time there were two kingdoms: one the home to the magical creatures protected and cared for by the faeries, the other the realm of men, jealous of the secrets and riches of their neighbour. A human boy, Stefan, ventured across the border and encountered a young faerie, Maleficent; over the years, his visits continued and their friendship blossomed into love, but as his obligations to his own kingdom grew he attended her less frequently and his craving for gold and power replaced his affection.
Time moves on, and the king of the realm of men leads an army against the Moors but confronted by Maleficent and her own enchanted army, they are defeated and humiliated. The vengeful king promises the hand of his daughter and his whole kingdom to anybody who will kill Maleficent; seeing this as his chance to attain his dark desires, Stefan accepts the challenge.
Returning to the Moors, he exploits Maleficent’s feelings for him and drugs her, but unable to bring himself to kill her he instead cuts off her wings, presenting them to the dying king as proof of the death of Maleficent. As promised, Stefan marries the princess and inherits the throne, but the wounded and heartbroken Maleficent transforms into the Dark Queen of the Moors, swearing revenge on the man who betrayed her.
Significantly modifying the story of Sleeping Beauty, anyone expecting a copy of the 1959 Disney movie will be disappointed. The young prince, the three good faeries, the spindle and the true love kiss may remain but writer Linda Woolverton, who has already made significant contribution and reinvention of Disney through the scripts for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, has crafted something unusual and unexpected but with respect for the original. The appearance of every major character is inspired directly by their animated counterparts with many scenes recreated exactly, most specifically the casting of the curse.
The movie is an impressive technical achievement and the experience gained by Stromberg during his collaborations with James Cameron on Avatar, Tim Burton on Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi on Oz the Great and Powerful bears fruit here, and visually the film deserves praise, from the set design and the costumes to the special effects, all beautifully composed elements through which the world is presented without overpower the story, complemented by James Newton Howard’s moody soundtrack.
Some of the audience may frown upon telling a story they have grown up with in an unorthodox way but there is much to appreciate in the boldness of the usually conservative Disney rewriting one of their best known villains as a victim. With more in common with Thelma and Louise than their traditional fare, Maleficent could even be seen as a feminist manifesto, the gentle female led Moors shown to be full of beauty, harmony and friendship, while the cruel domain of men is violent and materialistic.
Maleficent is violated and mutilated by a man she trusts, covering herself with what is in effect a hijab, hiding her head, ears and neck in shame, but instead of being forced into submission she rises to her most powerful. Anytime Disney have previously approached gender politics it has inevitably been swept aside with a song and a convenient marriage in the final act, but here Maleficent is unbowed and unapologetic, and while the symbolism of its story may not be understood by a young audience the message that women do not need to compromise or be subservient may reach some impressionable minds.
Yet at its core it is still a fairytale, a conflict between light and dark mediated through magic, an imaginary world which is not expected to conform to reality. With only two major battle scenes, this is not the epic high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings, the focus instead on the observations and interactions of Maleficent, but for those willing to accept the narrative gaps and just seeking to enjoy the magic there is much to be found. Though the pacing is slow the film is never boring or tiresome due to the fine performances of the cast led by the phenomenal Angelina Jolie.
Clearly enjoying the role, Jolie fills Maleficent with pride and majesty, strength and grace, but though calculated and cold she is still able to muster a spark of good, but her character overshadows the rest of the cast. As the adult Stefan, the reliable Sharlto Copley is dangerously close to becoming a supporting character, his descent into madness largely occurring offscreen while his wife, so unimportant as to be unnamed, vanishes without explanation.
As Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty herself, Elle Fanning is given more exposure and convincingly pure and innocent thought she is required to do nothing other than display a perpetual smile, but her three faeries serve little purpose other than intrusive comic relief, the conscience of Maleficent more effectively conveyed through Sam Riley as the enchanted crow who is her
only friend; while undeniably Maleficent’s story, the film would have benefited from the perspective of also seeing her through the eyes of others.