Maleficent tries to do for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz. It strives to take a villain and reexamine her life, giving us context and an explanation for her actions and making us question our preconceptions. Yet it lacks the grace and power of Wicked. Maleficent is occasionally shockingly old-fashioned, it has a mediocre script and an inconsistent tone, and it trades one shallow villain for another while leaving few of the characters with any depth. Yet Maleficent shines in spite of all that, defying expectations and rising above the things that might hold it back. It’s truly more than the sum of its parts, and it owes any success it finds to its two charismatic lead actresses.
We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty, whether from the 1959 Disney animated film or the original fairy tale, about how the young princess Aurora was cursed by the evil Maleficent as a baby that she’ll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death, only to be woken by true love’s kiss. Maleficent, however, starts long before Aurora’s birth, when Maleficent was a young girl faerie in the Moors, a magical land bordering and sharing an uneasy peace with a human kingdom. One day she meets a young boy from the human world who had stolen a gem from the Moors, and in pardoning him she makes a friend. As the two grow, they become friends and fall in love, but alas it’s not meant to be. Stefan is ambitious, and when, after Maleficent and her army of tree warriors defeat the human king in battle, the king offers his throne to whoever avenges him Stefan betrays Maleficent, cutting her wings from her back and bringing them to the castle. As a result of this betrayal, Maleficent surrounds the Moors with an impenetrable wall of thorns and proclaims herself ruler of her isolated land, turning it from happiness to darkness.
Stefan becomes king and, just like in the other stories, upon the christening of his daughter Maleficent shows up to curse the child. The true love’s kiss solution is a cruel joke to Maleficent, as she doesn’t believe in the existence of true love, but the story progresses as we knew it would. Aurora goes to live with three pixies in human form, who raise the child in an attempt to keep her safe (and away from spinning wheels). However, Maleficent watches as the child grows and is surprised by her kind heart and her innocence. As the girl becomes a teenager, this unlikely match of characters begin to bond, but as Aurora’s 16th birthday approaches and a young prince enters her life things come to a head, leaving everyone to grapple with their true feelings and motivations. Many of the iconic moments we all associate with the story, from pricked fingers to sleeping kisses to fire-breathing dragons make an appearance, but this time around nothing is quite what you’d expect.
Maleficent is very pretty to look at, with expansive, painterly vistas and some solid visual effects. Of course, that’s to be expected from first time director Robert Stromberg, who made a name for himself as the production designer on films like Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful. The look of the film isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s still expertly crafted if not as creative as one might have hoped. The costuming (particularly for Maleficent and Aurora) is also deserving of a shout-out, as is James Newton Howard’s score. The film has a solid supporting cast, including Sharlto Copley as king Stefan, and Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville as the pixies who raise Aurora. Brenton Thwaites doesn’t have much to do other than look charming as prince Phillip, but Sam Riley makes the most out of his moments onscreen as Diaval, a raven rescued by Maleficent and turned into a human servant by her.
However, unfortunately, most of these actors aren’t given much to work with. Stefan, in particular, is almost as one-dimensional a villain as Maleficent was in the original film, a slave to ambition and fear who doesn’t seem to have a reason for his motivations. The pixies mainly exist to add some slapstick humor to the film, I suppose to appeal to children, but they mostly come off as grating and annoying. The film’s tone is more than a little all over the place, with the darkness that was seemingly the movie’s goal interrupted by goofy scenes that feel out of place or shoehorned in in an attempt to keep things from going too dark. In that way, the movie almost feels like a contemporary of the animated version, which also jumped back and forth between dark moments of drama and silly moments of humor in a way that is less than appealing to modern audiences. The script in general is lacking polish, which is a shame because Linda Woolverton, who wrote the screenplay, has proven that she is capable of so much more with films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Alice in Wonderland. So why, if the film has all of these problems, do I say that it shines?
The answer is simple: Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning. The person who cast this pair deserves a promotion. Obviously, Jolie has a long and successful track record in Hollywood, with an Oscar and a variety of films in a variety of genres to her name, and Fanning has proven herself in recent films like Super 8 to be a rising star worthy of attention. Beyond that, however, they are both perfectly cast for their roles. Jolie commands the screen whenever she’s on it, chewing the scenery in a way that’s appropriately dramatic for someone with giant horns rising from her head and expansive black wings. But it’s the moments in between that are here best, as she watches Aurora grow and reevaluates her opinion of this innocent child whom she has punished for her father’s sins. Generally speaking, Aurora is not nearly as complex a character as Maleficent, yet the way Fanning plays her you’d never know. Aurora is all innocence and light, more of a symbol than a character, but Fanning fills in all of the gaps between lines of dialogue, bringing an authenticity that other actresses her age could never dream of. In ever smile and movement, Fanning sells the reality of what we’re watching, allowing the complexities of Maleficent to feel genuine rather than forced. Together their interactions and relationship feels completely natural despite the fantastical setting and mediocre script, and the pair says more with a look, a gesture and an expression than any screenwriter could ever communicate with pages of dialogue.
Jolie and Fanning wrest the vision of the film away from those behind the scenes and make it their own, and what they contribute to the film far outweighs any other aspect of its production. While casting can certainly ruin an otherwise solid film, it’s rare that casting elevates the material beyond what it would otherwise have been capable of. The visual effects of Maleficent’s magic are more impressive because of Jolie’s performance, the dialogue is deeper and richer when spoken by her and Fanning, and even the twist ending, which was touching but predictable, works perfectly because these actresses are behind it. The action is more exciting, the drama is more involving, and the film succeeds simply because they make it succeed. I went into Maleficent with tempered expectations, knowing that the imagery of the film might be impressive but worrying that they’d be unable to find a compelling story to tell from the one we already know, an expectation I admit was partially shaped by advance reviews I’d read. However, I could not have anticipated how engrossing and engaging the film would be, or that I would connect to it so much. Some movies seemingly have all of the right pieces, a great script, the right actors, perfect director, yet fail for reasons that are hard to articulate. Other films operate in reverse, succeed where they should have failed for equally mysterious reasons. There’s no doubt with Maleficent, however, as the key piece of the puzzle was put in place by Jolie and Fanning, a piece so strong that it raises the rest of the film to new heights, as if carried there by a faerie’s wings.