It seems that Hollywood’s circumstance of remaking classic tales with all the special effects of the 21st century will be a trend that never goes away. Not all cases are successful in my opinion; however, Disney’s Maleficent was a pleasant surprise that thoughtfully raised the question of good and bad existing in one character: the villain, who was also the film’s protagonist. Angelina Jolie (Salt) flawlessly takes on the role with everything that a viewer could want in its villain and main character, and we as viewers cannot take our eyes off her. We’re cheering for Maleficent, a wronged fairy who turns into a feared leader of the majestic moors that neighbors a castle and its misguided King Stefan, played by Sharlto Copley (Elysium). Enter Elle Fanning (Super 8) as the curious and beautiful Sleeping Beauty, more commonly known as Aurora in the case of the movie, who is caught in the middle of a war that began before her time, between her father and the vengeful Maleficent. The dynamic between the film’s female leads creates a new understanding of love, family, and home within the fairy tale culture, under the direction of Robert Stromberg (two-time Oscar-winner for Art Direction for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar).
Maleficent ended the four year gap since Jolie was last seen on screen; it was 2010’s The Tourist, also starring Johnny Depp, where we saw the pouty actress flail when portraying the mysterious duality of a complex, yet loving character. It’s her role as Maleficent where Jolie is redeemed, recalling all things sensitive, justified, and powerful about the actress’s prowess and command. Maleficent is a character who struggles with control, protecting the fantastical moors from the violence of humans, especially after pre-royal Stefan has betrayed his friendship to her. Jolie masterfully captures the humanity that exists in the shadow of Maleficent’s brewing hatred- that is until her affection and protective instincts for young Aurora prove stronger.
Fanning as Aurora couldn’t have been a better match, especially since the accomplished ingénue brings the identity of the character full circle. Aurora experiences fantasy and joy, betrayal from her loved ones, and the typical infatuation of a teenager for a prince, all while unaware of her true identity as King Stefan’s cursed princess daughter. When we see Fanning and Jolie together, there’s magic in that these strong female characters play off each other unlike any other villain and princess combination previously seen on the big screen.
Additionally valuable players in the Disney film are Sam Reilly (On the Road) as Maleficent’s likable minion Diaval, who takes the form of a man, crow, and fiercer creatures, as well as a silly trio of godmothers (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville) who protect Aurora’s identity by raising her as an orphan until her sixteenth birthday, unaware that she is always in plain sight of the seeming fairy godmother Maleficent. Also, Jolie’s youngest daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt makes her acting debut as toddler-aged Aurora.
While the storyline moves fast, establishing that Aurora is a mirror of Maleficent’s childhood and life before King Stefan ruins it all, it’s certainly worth the watch because we’re not only rooting for villain, but the princess as well. Both are heroes, tragic and archetypical, yet there’s suspense in not expecting how good and bad are defined by the end. There’s a strong message about female empowerment, especially given that Jolie and Fanning’s performances evoke a balance of grit and grace amid adventure, vengeance, and love. The only hindrance in the film exists merely to stay true to the original love story of a prince who gets the girl, but it’s a refreshing twist to see that the definition of “true love’s kiss” is given a new layer for a well-informed and perhaps desensitized, modern day audience, similarly to that explored in Frozen and TV’s Once Upon a Time.
There’s so much to enjoy visually, including the lush landscape of the moors throughout its evolution, which is parallel to the challenges Aurora faces, growing up cursed and torn between the life she knows and that of the fantasy Maleficent nurtures for the child. The movie meets all expectations of the action adventure genre, and is successful in the entertaining retelling of an old tale with impressive upgrades. Also, when the credits roll, Lana Del Rey’s haunting version of Sleeping Beauty’s “Once Upon a Dream” adds the prefect touch of darkness clashing with innocence, a theme that resonates for Maleficent, Aurora, and King Stefan.
The Bluray / DVD is available for purchase on November 4th. Informative extras include deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes features examining Aurora’s beauty and Elle Fanning’s approach, as well as bringing Maleficent to life with couture costumes. If it’s an adventure you seek that’s both nostalgically familiar, yet revitalized for today’s audience, Maleficent certainly fits the bill.
Rating: A must-see and well-developed reimagining of a beloved story with strong cast that delivers balance and twists against a good versus evil debate (8/10).