This real life offering from Disney, directed by Robert Stromberg, borrows heavily from the original 1959 Sleeping Beauty cartoon we’ve all grown up watching – but then gives a new twist on the story à la Wicked. It’s an open secret that baddies all have the best lines and often the most enjoyable parts, so does this makeover of Sleeping Beauty’s wicked fairy work?
A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman with stunning black wings, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army of humans threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. And that’s as much of the very chatty blurb that I’m prepared to share, as the rest lurches into Spoiler territory.
Stromberg very effectively, in my view, recreates the feel and sense of the cartoon world – particularly the rather rundown cottage where Aurora grows up with the three pixies, delightfully recreated here by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville. The humour they provide is very welcome after the tension and emotion generated by Maleficient’s brooding presence after the catastrophe that befalls her and the script openly borrows from slices of the 1959 original – as in the state of Aurora’s sixteenth birthday cake the pixies bake, for instance. And the thorn barrier Maleficient constructs between the two worlds is identical to the cartoon version that grows up around the castle.
Most of the supporting cast do a solidly good job – I was especially impressed with Ellie Fanning. Aurora is essentially a ‘good, pure girl’ which is enormously difficult to play with conviction, but Fanning pulls it off with aplomb. I also enjoyed Sam Riley’s performance as Maleficient’s raven – it could so easily have turned into the cartoon version of ‘evil sidekick’ and he manages to produce a nuanced characterisation with relatively little help from the script. However the big disappointment was Sharlto Copley’s rendition as King Stefan. Copley’s screen presence and acting simply wasn’t up to the job of producing a sufficiently strong antagonist to go head to head against Jolie’s Maleficient. This was a real shame – it unbalanced the film and ensured that it became, in effect, a vehicle for Angelina Jolie as the lead character. If the likes of Liam Neeson, Viggo Mortensen or Sean Bean had played opposite Jolie as Stefan, then I believe the dynamic would have been a lot stronger.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Jolie’s domination of this film is absolute as she portrayed the tortured fairy with strength and assurance, without lapsing into a pantomime version of the character in the way that Sharlto does. Granted, there are times when the English accent is a tad iffy – but that is a minor quibble. Her charisma, amazing make-up and command of every scene she appears in makes this a mesmerising performance – to the extent that my varifocals and 3D glasses were quarrelling throughout the film, yet I only really noticed the blinding headache as the credits started to roll.
This film has been given a PG rating, claiming at the start that it contains scenes of ‘mild violence’. Hm. Not sure about that. While we don’t see visceral shots of dismembered limbs in the battle scene, one hapless warrior is flung into the air by an enraged earth dragon and falls screaming to his death. And the scene where Maleficient wakes from a drugged sleep to discover what Stefan has done to her is all too realistic – right down to her scream of pain and despair… So I won’t be taking my imaginative and sensitive 9 year old granddaughter to see it and personally feel it is more suitable for the 12+ age-group. That said, I’ve seen reports from parents who have taken along younger children without any upsets – so I’d say it depends upon how sturdy your children are. If they are prone to nightmares and highly imaginative, give this one a miss until they are old enough to fully comprehend the powerful message of survival and strength in the face of brutal abuse that runs through this film.