One of the first movies I reviewed on this website was Tim Burton’s live-action re-make of Alice in Wonderland, more or less the first in a lengthening line of live-action re-makes of Disney’s animated classics. My overall reaction to that unfortunate development was mostly negative, but it grossed enough to spark multiple progeny, the most recent of which is this year’s entry, the long-awaited Maleficent.
Who doesn’t love Maleficent? Though Sleeping Beauty itself is not one of Disney’s more popular animated features, Maleficent has over the years become easily the most recognizable, and frankly terrifying, of the great Disney villains. She’s so ubiquitous that I imagine many people aren’t even sure from which picture she hails, or confuse her with the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Alas, such is the lot of the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil”.
Sleeping Beauty is often said to be a failure because its protagonist, Princess Aurora, and hero Prince Phillip are so bland and boring, but to look at it in this way is to completely misunderstand the point of Sleeping Beauty. Aurora and the Prince are not meant to be compelling leads, rather they’re meant to give the story at least some minimal structure on which to hang the beautiful artwork, the classic Tschaikovksy music, and of course the antics of Maleficent and the three fairies. They are the backbone of the movie. Aurora herself is only on screen for about fifteen minutes. The rest of the film is spent with the fairies duking it out with the great and powerful Maleficent.
This live-action revision sticks with this formula, minimizing Aurora and Phillip further, even shoving aside the fairies, focussing exclusively on Maleficent. Many have compared this new film’s point-of-view to that of Wicked, a valid comparison except in one key factor: Maleficent does not go to the lengths Wicked does to sanitize its formerly evil main character, whose perceived wickedness is contingent upon an unlikely series of misunderstandings. No indeed. Our Maleficent, though not exactly the Mistress of All Evil, is quite clearly still villainous, though she has her light moments and eventually (MINOR SPOILER) her redemption. She does indeed curse the young baby Aurora to a sleep like death, and this she does out of vindictive lust for revenge. Even the loophole she includes in the curse she includes with an ulterior motive (you see, Maleficent doesn’t believe in true love).
As with all good villains, Maleficent does not start out bad, but finds herself drawn into a whirlpool of cruelty and hard-heartedness by a series of bad and selfish choices, culminating in her cursing of the baby Aurora – a decision which she eventually regrets. Her regret is not immediate or complete, and even as she begins to befriend Aurora in her kingdom in the Moors, her motives are extremely questionable. The brilliance of this movie is that it is Maleficent who must be awakened, figuratively, from a sleep like death, just as our Little Briar Rose must be awakened literally. Which brings us to the best element of Maleficent: Angelina Jolie’s performance in the title role.
Maleficent first came to life in 1959 with the voice of the late great Eleanor Audley (along with Mercedes McCambridge perhaps the greatest voice actress in motion picture history). Maleficent’s deep, smoky voice is instantly recognizable, demonstrating that the character of Maleficent originates in the voice. Though Angelina Jolie mercifully spares us of a bad Eleanor Audley impersonation, her voice (especially in Maleficent’s long oratorial scenes) has a similar weight, depth, and wisdom as the original we’ve all come to know and love. Jolie, whom we sometimes forget is a really terrific actress, never disappoints. Her Maleficent is capable of the subtlest and most conflicted emotions all within one simple glance. The a scene in which Maleficent awakens to find that her fairy wings have been stolen from her – a scene, by the way, which has been likened, not unfairly, to a date-rape – is truly heartbreaking, due in no small part to Jolie’s skill as a melodramatic actress.
Maleficent is a great movie, extremely flawed in areas, but able to rise above its own tacky moments*. Whereas during Alice in Wonderland you get the feeling that it despises its source material, Maleficent – though certainly wiling to alter the mythology where it feels necessary – revels in the history and charm of the fairy tale. We sometimes forget how disturbing and dark some of the old classics were in their original forms, but Maleficent seems pleased to remind us. There are few unambiguous characters, with the exception of the Prince and Aurora, whose actions are either good or bad one hundred percent of the time. The film’s two leads, Maleficent and King Stefan, both live in the grey areas, an inclusion I find refreshing after the simple-minded black-and-white morality of most Hollywood schlock.
I am so very pleased with Maleficent. It is formulaic at times, which works, and daring at others, which really works. The cinematography and production design are beautiful, and the drama is bolstered by a rousing soundtrack by James Newton Howard, to which I am happily listening as I write this post. The score is melodic and harmonious, a relief after years of the increasingly tiresome percussive boomings of Hans Zimmer. This is Howard’s best work since his masterpiece, 2005’s King Kong. I may be cynical, but I give credit where credit is due, and I feel Maleficent is being unfairly maligned by the critical elite. This is a jewelry box of a movie, as deceptively complex as it is gorgeous. I’m even thinking of seeing it again in theatres (something I haven’t done in years) to pick up on things I might have missed in this lyrical tale of the nature of good and evil. Long live the fairy tale!