Robert Stromberg | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG
Disney seem to be embarking on a project to remake all of their most beloved animated movies in live action,* with Cinderella being one of the highest grossing movies of last year, The Jungle Book currently doing gangbusters at the box office worldwide, an all-star Beauty and the Beast hotly anticipated for next year, and others in the pipeline that include Mulan, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, both Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, another 101 Dalmatians, an Aladdin prequel, Winnie the Pooh, and Tim Burton’s Dumbo. (No, I did not make those last two up.)
But it all started… back in 2010, when Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was an unexpectedly ginormous hit. But then there were a couple of years off, so you could argue the current wave started here: a revisionist re-telling of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of its villainess. In this version, we meet Maleficent as a child, protector of some fairy kingdom that borders the human kingdom. One day she meets a trespassing human boy, Stefan; they fall in love; eventually, he stops visiting, set on making his fortune in the king’s castle. After Maleficent has grown up to be Angelina Jolie doing an English accent and Stefan has grown up to be Sharlto Copley doing a Scottish accent (goodness knows why), the human king decides to invade the fairy land. Maleficent repels his forces, and the dying king vows whoever can defeat her will be named heir. So power-hungry Stefan does something terrible, and we’re on the road to the story we know… more or less.
It’s an interesting idea to take an archetypal villain who’s evil for evil’s sake and try to give her motivation, to understand why she did terrible things. Maleficent makes a fair fist of this, beginning long before the familiar tale to establish a run of events that tip the titular character to the dark side. What Stefan does to her to win power is pretty dark, and a clear analogy to a real-world crime that you wouldn’t expect from a PG-rated Disney movie. Our sympathies, at this point, lie with Maleficent. Of course, then she goes and condemns an innocent child to eternal slumber, so that’s less nice.
However, this is a Disney movie — you don’t get to turn a villain into the central character and have her be evil throughout. This is where the film gets really revisionist, because Maleficent keeps an eye on cursed Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) as she grows, doing more to keep her alive than the trio of fairies she’s supposedly in the care of, and her heart is gradually warmed to the girl. Unfortunately, Maleficent was too good at the cursing malarkey: unable to lift her own spell, it plays out regardless, and the film serves us new renditions of the impassable thorns, giant dragon, and true love’s first kiss. It’s in the last where Maleficent is thematically revisionist rather than just a massive rewrite. Your mileage may vary on whether this version is obvious and cheesy, or actually more meaningful and (for the primary audience of little kiddies) more thought-provoking than the original’s — I’d go with the latter.
So in some respects, Maleficent is a success. In others, it’s a bit of a mess. For all the additional character development given to Maleficent herself, the rest of the characters are two-dimensional at best. It’s ironic that, in a movie all about fleshing out and understanding the villain, the new villain (i.e. Stefan) is so flat. Other elements are just pointless or nonsensical, like the corridor of iron spikes Maleficent & co briefly have to squeeze along. It’s not a bad idea per se — it’s been established that iron hurts fairies (goodness knows why, but there you go), so it’s a reasonable concept for a physical obstacle — but it’s really poorly integrated into the story, and it’s bested by… walking through it carefully. Thrilling.
Parts of the film test-screened poorly — mainly the first act, with audiences wondering why it took so long for Jolie to turn up. Consequently, the whole thing was thrown out and reshot; in the process, Peter Capaldi and Miranda Richardson were deleted (and after they’d had to endure hours of transformative prosthetics for their roles, too), and Maleficent was given a new backstory. How far this extended into the rest of the movie, I’m not sure, but at times it feels like stuff has been cut or rearranged. Certainly the story flies past — if it wasn’t trimmed down in the edit, it needed expanding back at the screenplay stage.
Then there’s the uncanny-valley-tastic rendition of the three fairies, with mini plasticky-CGI versions of Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville floating around until they jarringly turn into live action; the unintentional hilarity of the Prince Charming-type apparently being from the kingdom of Ofsted (it’s actually Ulfstead, but still); and the original film’s famous song, Once Upon a Dream, being slowly murdered by Lana Del Rey. Perhaps surprisingly, the work of production-designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg is pretty decent, though over-fond of crash zooms during action sequences, and an overall visual style that’s reminiscent of the likes of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful — both of which Stromberg designed, funnily enough.
For all its faults, Maleficent was still the fourth highest grossing movie of 2014 — though the top grosser was Transformers: Age of Extinction and second was The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, so that shows what quality matters to the box office. Nonetheless, it’s no wonder Disney have kicked into gear with the live-action remakes, and even a Maleficent sequel is in development. (No idea how that’ll work — Sleepier Beauty?) On the bright side, there is something more interesting going on here than just an animated film being re-done with real people (and copious CGI). Certainly, anyone interested in fairytales being deconstructed and/or reconstructed should be sure to check it out.
Maleficent is available on Netflix UK as of this week.
* At least they’re not trying to tie them together as another shared universe! ^