Maleficent Review: Angelina Jolie Casts a Dark Spell

Four Star Rating: ***

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Juno Temple, Sharlto Copley
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton
Genre: Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy 
Rated: PG - fantasy action and violence, frightening scenes
Release Date: May 30, 2014
Run Time: 97 minutes

In recent years there have been a crop of cinematic releases that some have labelled as "dark retellings" of classic fairy tales. It has never entirely been accurate to label the pictures this way considering many of the original stories were closer to unshakeable nightmares rather than something candy coated and sweet. For example, the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty contained rape, infanticide, and being eaten alive. The stories were designed to be morality tales and often scare children into following what was deemed the correct path. They were also thoroughly conservative in their message and almost all the female characters were either naive young damsels in need of a man or manipulative and nasty woman who dared to try to take charge and have authority.

The depiction of woman is where most of the re-imagined fairy tales veer away from their source material. An independent woman is no longer to be scorned and a girl daring to think for herself isn't something to be punished. Maleficent is about female empowerment and the strength found in unsuspected motherhood, which is a far deviation from most fairy tales where the stepmother is heartless and vile.

Since the picture is called Maleficent rather than The Ogre Mother (the villain from the earliest versions), it is better viewed as a reworking of Disney's 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty feature. Angelina Jolie as a strong, fierce, and independent woman who is both allowed to make mistakes but also revered almost as a goddess while King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is a greedy and conniving dictator that creates a juxtapostion that drastically shakes the mythology and message of any previous story based on Sleeping Beauty.

The marketing sold this picture as an origin story of what lead to Maleficent into becoming one of Disney's most famous villains. It looked to be following the path of Gregory Maguire's Wicked, where it tells the tale of how a once good witch became the famous green hag from The Wizard of Oz, but this time far less tongue-in-cheek and more geared towards children. The promise of Angelina Jolie playing a villain was tantalizing and I was intrigued of the challenge of turning one of the most beloved and respected actors in Hollywood into an evil witch. Except Jolie is never really a villain but rather someone who makes a grave mistake that she then spends the rest of the narrative seeking redemption. This isn't a prequel or an origin story, but rather a drastic re-imagining that challenges ideologies embedded in classic fairy tales and elevates the stature of bold and authoritative women (okay fine, woman because the strength is entirely Jolie here).

The picture opens up in traditional fairy tale style by declaring there are two lands at odds. There is a human kingdom oppressed by an obsessed and rapacious king and the magical moors occupied by a collection of fantastical creatures that don't have a defined ruler though a young Maleficent seems to hold a distinct power position. First time director Robert Stromberg shows his strong special effects and set design leanings by accentuating the major differences through visuals by making the moors bright, colourful, fruitful, and vibrant with a wide collection of cute creatures eager to become plush dolls while the human kingdom is dark, drab, and bleak with most of the personality coming from ornate architecture. One place is about growth and nurturing while the other lusts for power and riches -- not so surprisingly, one has woman in power positions and other is ruled entirely by males.

King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) craves the riches within the Moor but the powerful winged Maleficent along with her moss-man army overpowers his attempted invasions. The battle scene along with every violent engagement between Maleficent and man is done in dark and grainy visual with CGI creatures that are jagged and craggy that is visually unappealing and contrasting to the vivid and beautiful looking moor. Rather than blame this on budgetary constraints, it feels purposeful in juxtaposing the peaceful with ravages of selfish ambition and hatred.

The ailing king promises his throne to whoever can get into the moors and he believes the slaying of Maleficent is the key to this goal. Stefan, a meager palace worker that overhears this declaration, has ambitions of wearing the crown and uses his past romantic relationship with Maleficent to betray her. This is where the picture has a surprising amount of cynicism towards the notion of romantic true love as the first act spent some time developing a close and passionate romance between Stefan and Maleficent that gets sealed with "true love's first kiss." In almost any other family picture, this would be a story about how the power of their true love would unite the two nations and any wrongdoings would be overcome by their deep connection. Stefan's cravings to be king overcome any real feelings he has that leads to him seducing and drugging Maleficent, so that he can literally cut off her wings. In fairy tale land, such an act is a real deal breaker for any reconciliation.

The narrative that unfolds becomes a revenge tale of a once pure and good woman who is defiled by a treacherous lover. This will likely be the closest a Disney approved picture ever gets to being about rape. Maleficent is betrayed by someone she implicitly trusted, but also in the act she loses something that defines her and gave her strength. She is consumed with rage and heartbreak, and also no longer deems the world a place of hope and optimism. The moor becomes a place she rules over and her obsession is to destroy the man that devastated her.

It is dark and heavy material that we never expect a Disney picture to explore. Jolie carries the material on her de-winged shoulders by presenting a grieving and disillusioned woman who masks the pain through a cold exterior and forceful disposition. We stay attached to Jolie due to her charm and charisma, and her facials tease at someone inherently good. She also represents a powerful image of womanhood that demonstrates why the male characters fear her and felt she needed to be destroyed. Even though the actual story is fairly basic and every other character never rises above their archetypes, it is Jolie that entrances use and gives nuance to this story. Her pain feels real and her journey for her soul and redemption is one we want to follow.

Maleficent does an almost loyal remake of the famous scene from the animated feature where gifts are bestowed upon an infant Aurora and the three brightly coloured fairies give magical gifts of good luck to the baby. Just like we remember from the original, Maleficent comes storming in right before the final fairy gets a chance to deliver her good fortune upon Aurora. The interplay between Maleficent and the king remains close to what happened in the animated version, but this time there is a different subtext as each word has a hidden meaning as we're now aware of the history between the two. The king no longer is good or seen as the victim in this situation by the viewer (though, he does among the characters present). The curse of eternal sleep is laid upon Aurora just as we suspect and it is just as disturbing and dark even if Maleficent is our protagonist this time. The major difference is that she is no longer the embodiment of evil, and the act is against the king rather than pure malevolence towards an innocent child. The final moments of the scene plays against what we know about the story as we await the final fairy to stand up and change the fate of the baby by invoking the "true love's kiss" clause. Instead, the scene veers against our expectations by having Maleficent add in this requirement as partly a way to soften the malicious act but also to demonstrate her own disdain towards the notion that romantic love actually exists.

Unlike recent fairy tale "re-imaginings" like Jack the Giant Slayer and Snow White and the Huntsman, this picture actually plays with the tropes, clich├ęs, and expectations that have come out of years of being weaned on these stories. The other pictures were essentially the same tale we knew but with amped battle scenes and scenery inspired by The Lord of the Rings franchise. This time around we get a very altered Sleeping Beauty that retains the tradition of fairy tales having a message, but now about feminine strength rising above male abuse perpetuated by blind ambition and insecurity. Many moments in history and different cultures there has been male leadership and institutions finding ways to devalue and subjugate woman, and this is the major them running through Linda Woolverton's screenplay.

The screenplay also is one that is bound to leave one with far too many questions if they dare to ponder upon it too long. If Maleficent has the powers to turn a raven into a man (Sam Riley) or create things from seemingly nothing than why can't she give herself new wings? If the real goal was to enter the moor than why did Stefan earn kingship by just cutting off the wings of the protector but still failing to gain entrance? If the two lands are divided and seen as separate domains, why would the three fairies have any loyalty to the king? What is the point of hiding Aurora away at a cottage for 16 years if it was so easy for Maleficent to find and stalk her?

The answer is that this picture aspires to be a fairy tale rather than a provocative drama, which means the storytelling is simple and often more allegorical than realistic. The majority of the characters and even the situations are nothing more than set pieces, plot devices and sometimes even contrivances to push forward the Maleficent story. It is the Jolie show, which mostly works because she radiates from the screen more than the special effects and set designs.

This mostly means everyone else populated in the world either seems like a plot device or a way to amplify the message about Maleficent trying to recapture her strength and redeem her vengeful and regretful act. Elle Fanning brings a precociousness and charm to Aurora, but the script doesn't make her much more than the trigger that warms Maleficent to send her on a new path. There never is that defining scene that makes their relationship organic and more than just a crucial plot point. Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple are incredibly talented character actors, but their purpose here is to be bickering and inept fairies who falter as caregivers in order to be both the comic relief and the impetus for the protagonist to rise up as the true mother figure. It is noble that the script takes Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites) in an unexpected and very un-fairy tale direction, but he ends up being nothing more than a metaphor and further deviation against the traditional messages of true love. Stefan is a one-dimensional ruthless king that seems to betray what was set-up in the first act, but a single focused villain isn't any different than most other Disney features. Each of the other characters' contributions to the bigger story mostly works because we believe in Jolie but it still does feel contrived, disjointed, and forced at times.

Shaking up the traditional structure of the fairy tale is noble and the picture would have stood out more if Frozen didn't do a similar thing last year. The strongest moments are when it allows us peeks into the soul of the wronged protagonist and Jolie weaves her magic by doing the hard work by creating a complicated yet endearing character. The best parts is the picture daring to go into darker territory and show a strong female protagonist overcome male abuse and find a priceless treasure from the tragedy (motherhood).

My prediction is that this picture will be remembered fondly by adults who saw this as children. It won't be the best picture they've seen but the dark story about a powerful female protagonist who was allowed to go darker than most big studio heroines will stick with them. Hopefully, it ends up inspiring even more ambitious fantasy tales about female empowerment and hope.