Fairy tales in movies have been going through an interesting revisionist trend during recent years. “Enchanted”(2007) was an enjoyable clash between Disney fairy tale world and our real world, and its major delight came from how it deconstructed and then reconstructed many conventions of fairy tales through the amusing interactions between two different worlds. While “Mirror Mirror”(2012) and “Snow White and the Huntsman”(2012) were not very good in my opinion, both had distinctive approaches to freshen up their original tale, and then we recently got “Frozen”(2013), which surprisingly presented one of its main characters as a troubled, sympathetic figure while making an interesting variation of one conventional solution for happy ending.
“Maleficent”, the latest offering from this trend, also provides a revisionist version of a well-known fairy tale, and it succeeds to some degrees in creating a complex heroine we understand and care about. Although the other things in the film mostly feel bland or passable in comparison and they are not usually held together well in its problematic plot, its strong center is still memorable enough to talk about, and there are also some striking moments to haunt you for not only their beauty on the surface but also their darkness behind it.
Its story is mainly told through the view of Maleficent(Angelina Jolie), who was the villain character in Disney animation film “Sleeping Beauty”(1959). While following a plot not so different from that 1959 animation film, the movie presents a more sympathetic and complex version of this character, and we come to see that she had an understandable reason to be bitter and angry enough to put such a cruel curse on the young princess in the story.
When she was young, Maleficent(played by Isobelle Molloy at this stage) was a gentle and lively fairy, and she was also a major force guarding a magic realm called Moors, which sometimes looks like a close cousin to fantasy worlds we have seen from other movies including “Avatar”(2009) and “Alice in Wonderland”(2010). Not so surprisingly, the movie was directed by Robert Stromberg, who won two Oscars for his work in these two films mentioned above, and his technical skills are well utilized here in this movie although the result is not as enchanting as his Oscar-winning works(but James Newton Howard’s score is very impressive as the enhancing accompaniment to the visuals on the screen, by the way).
Moors is located next to the kingdom of humans, so Maleficent and other fantasy creatures are watchful of humans who want to invade into Moors for snatching abundant amount of jewels. On one day, Maleficent catches a young boy thief named Stefan(Michael Higgins), and something clicks between them despite their difference. They meet again later, and then they become close to each other as spending their time together.
But their relationship does not last long as she hoped. After growing up, Stefan(now played by Sharlto Copley) becomes very ambitious, and he does not hesitate to grab the chance when his dying king(Kenneth Cranham), who has kept trying to conquer Moors but failed for years due to Maleficent, declares on his dying bed that anyone who slays her will be his heir apparent. While hiding his purpose from her, he approaches to Maleficent, and then he betrays her when she gets asleep due to drugged drink given to her. He initially intends to kill her, but he chooses to cut her wings instead and takes them to the king, and she is devastated by his betrayal when she wakes up. Young audiences might not see the disturbing aspect of this cruel moment, but adult audiences will probably be reminded of those sad cases of women drugged and then raped, and you can feel the real heartbreaking pain from Jolie’s performance when Maleficent realizes what has happened to her.
As a consequence, Maleficent is turned into an angry and hostile woman in black who is as thorny as the big barrier she puts on the boundary between two kingdoms(again, you may see the parallel between her and the sexually abused here). Through her sidekick crow Diaval(Sam Riley), she gets the news about Stefan and his big rise to the throne, and, when she hears that King Stefan and his wife are about to have their baby princess, she does not miss the chance for letting out her cold fury in front of King Stefan and others.
So we see that infamous curse involved with spindle wheel needle, and we also see how the young princess is sent to a place far from the kingdom for her safety. Of course, Maleficent sees and knows everything, and, to her surprise, she finds herself unexpectedly becoming an unofficial fairy godmother to Aurora(Elle Fanning). She cannot help but feel attachment to this good-natured princess even though she is as reluctant as Mary Poppins to admit her feeling, and her affection on Aurora grows more and more as years go by.
Realizing that Aurora should not be the victim of her spite, Maleficent regrets more about her curse, especially when she is reminded again that she made it almost unbreakable from the beginning. She tries her best even though she does not believe in true love’s kiss which can solve the situation, and she eventually comes to confront King Stefan, who, after long years of brooding alone in his room, becomes spiteful and vengeful just like she was.
Like many recent fantasy films, the movie becomes less interesting as its climax is being packed with CGI action scenes and, yes, that fire-breathing dragon, and I felt my interest decreased a lot during that part. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton tries hard to fit its new elements into the original story, but the story frequently feels incoherent as shifting between different moods during its short running time, and it is rather disappointing to see that talented actresses like Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple have a few things to do besides playing the Three Stooges version of fairy godmother trio. To be frank with you, these silly fairy godmothers in the movie are so inept that we could have forgiven Maleficent if she had thrown the sleeping curse on them for dear Aurora’s wellbeing.
Anyway, “Maleficent” is an interesting attempt on a familiar fairy tale, and it is partially successful thanks to Angelina Jolie’s magnificent lead performance, which is the main reason to watch this rather uneven film. With her arresting star presence, she is always convincing as vividly charting her character’s emotional drama, and that reminds us again of how she has been sometimes underrated as an actress despite her stellar performances rewarded with several major awards including Oscar. Her performance in “Maleficent” really deserves a movie better than this, but she surely elevates the movie to considerable degrees for our enjoyment, while proving that she is indeed a star actress of our time deserving to be cherished and valued.