Maleficent Review: A surprisingly enchanting tale about one of the greatest Disney Villains of our time
By: Pedro Hernandez
Revisionist takes on classic fairy tales are all the rage these days. Seemingly starting with Disney's own “Alice in Wonderland”, studios have set out to present classic fairy tales in a brand new light, often providing stories with more socially relevant morals and themes. It's more than just “once upon a time”, a princess, a prince, a magical curse and a larger than life villain to tie it all up. It is about looking at classic stories through a new set of eyes in hopes of not only reinvigorating some of the best stories of all time, but also making us understand characters that at some point where merely one dimensional. Such is the case with “Maleficent”, a film that sets out to create a layered version of one of Disney's most versatile villains.
“Maleficent” takes us way back to Maleficent's childhood, when she was but just an innocent wood fairy living alongside the human world. There she meets a young boy named Estefan, who she quickly becomes romantically attached to as the years go by. Sadly, this would be short lived as Maleficent experiences a betrayal so tragic, it is what drives her to become the villain we know and love today, and sets the classic Sleeping Beauty tale forward.
If there is a word I would use to sum up the entire “Maleficent” experience it would be... surprising. Back when the film was first announced, as excited as I was to see that one of my favorite villains would be getting her own movie, as details were slowly leaked onto the internet, excitement started to turned into worry, and ended with flat out apathy. The script was being penned by Linda Woolverton, best known for the problematic “Alice in Wonderland” retelling that came out in 2010. The film switched many directors until it landed Robert Stromberg, best known for being a visual director. These basic details made the film out to be yet another revisionist fairy tale film a la Wicked, with romantic betrayal being the catalyst that inspires the events in the film. Imagine my shock when a good chunk of the movie is not at all like I imagined.
Yes, Maleficent is shown as a sympathetic villain whose tragic past does lead her to become a villain. But the way it tells that story is what makes the film the most effective of Disney's big three fantasy films (2010's “Alice in Wonderland”, 2013's “Oz: The Great and Powerful”). Maleficent herself is a layered, complex character that is neither portrayed as a hero or as a villain. She is a victim of many circumstances, as many of the characters in the film are. She can be intimidating and scary, but also caring and understanding. Saying this, however, does confirm that the film does away with how Maleficent was originally known as: the mistress of all evil that cursed Aurora because she was not invited to her birthday. This is where both a deep appreciation of the film and an intense hatred of the film may surface a upon first viewing of the film.
While “Maleficent” does indeed use the original fairy tale and Disney film as a starting point for its narrative, it sets out to completely reinvent it. As stated, Maleficent is more than just a figure of pure evil. The curse is still there, as well as the three good fairies that raise Princess Aurora into her teenage years, there is a dragon battle at the end, and true love's kiss wins the day. But those elements are presented in such a way that it changes the dynamics of the original film. Such drastic changes are what give the film such a surprising edge to it, but will also upset those that expected the film to be a loyal live action retelling of the original Disney film. That's where the key to enjoy this film comes in; being stripped of expectations. “Maleficent” does make some awkward choices regarding its narrative, and often it does come off as being too corny for its own good. But when the film is enjoyed for what it is rather than for what it should have been, there is a lot to love about it. One of these being the famed Angelina Jolie as the titular Maleficent.
From the first minute she is on-screen, you can tell that she is having a blast in the role. She delights in the deliciousness of Maleficent's wicked intentions, as well as her grace and beauty, but also manages to create a more sympathetic character with plenty of emotions and ideas. This will definitely delight those that wanted to see a more complex Maleficent, but will annoy Maleficent purists whose idea of the villain is that she is an evil woman through and through. Despite that elephant in the room, Jolie brings a genuine characterization to the film that is both campy and over the top, as well as subdued and complex.
Less shining are the rest of the characters. While they all do an admirable job within their own talents, many pale in comparison to Jolie's presence. Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent's ever changing companion, sets out to expand upon the role of Diablo the raven in a humorous, yet supportive, manner that never overstays its welcome. His quips towards Maleficent and her plans are often gold, bringing a sense of levity to an otherwise dramatic film. Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple as the three good fairies are also effective in their comedic roles, though some may find their antics more annoying than endearing. Sharlto Copley as King Estefan is a fascinating case. In many ways, he is just as complex as Maleficent herself, suffering the consequences of his actions that nearly drive him mad throughout the film. But on the other, he comes off as being too whiny and too paranoid, almost bordering on a cartoony stereotype. Last, and sadly least, are Elle Fanning and Brenton Thwaites as Aurora and Prince Philip, respectively. To put it bluntly, half the time they are treated as human props, being there to complete a task within the plot. Aurora herself seems aloof a lot of the time, but her chemistry with Jolie is believable and genuine.
Regardless of what you may think of the story and characters, there is no denying that the film is quite a looker. Sparing no expense, “Maleficent” uses both digital and real world locales to tell the simple story through an epic scope (a feat that was accomplished by Walt Disney and his team of animators in the original film). Much prominent now are the magical creatures and elements that inhabit Maleficent's world, which add enough whimsy to keep the younger audience members interested. Everything from fairies and trolls to tree guardians and dragons, “Maleficent” is a beautifully inhabited story.
In the end, I enjoyed the film more than I expected. I cannot guarantee that many others will feel the same, though. Quality is often uneven throughout, some story decisions and changes are weird, and it will likely bother Disney purists the most. Any criticisms launched toward it are more than justified. But when taken as its own entity that uses the original Disney film as a springboard towards an alternate retelling with great visuals, risky story development and fun characters, “Maleficent” proves to be a pleasantly entertaining surprise that is, so far, the best in Disney's trio of fantasy epics.
I second that review!! I wanted to wait to post this until after we had viewed the film today. It was wonderful, and I will go see it again!! I give it the BIG thumbs up! Now I know why Producer Don Hahn is so excited about this film! He should be proud!
Thank you Pedro for your wonderful review!! It is much appreciated!
Here is a link to an interview with Don Hahn.