Disney has given us a bit of a surprise with their twisted take on "Sleeping Beauty." The tale usually centers on a rather dull princess raised by fairy godmothers to avoid a curse a wicked sorceress placed on her as an infant. But in "Maleficent," the Disney folks have chosen to tell the same tale from the perspective of the sorceress -- now a disgruntled fairy. And that’s the funny thing: Maleficent isn’t really evil. That’s not a spoiler, either.
As soon as the film begins we are thrust into the hero/anti-hero story of a human-sized fairy (played first by Isobelle Molloy) with dark wings and curved black horns that lives in the Moors with a number of fascinating and playful creatures. She loves her life and lives in peace amongst the supernatural inhabitants. The humans who live on the other side of the Moors are prohibited from entering the Moors, but when a nervous boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) arrives, Maleficent befriends him and the two become staunch companions.
But Stefan has the desire to be King one day. So when the current King’s plans to take over the Moors are thwarted by the now adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and he becomes bent on revenge, Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) decides to take matters into his own hands in order to impress the dying King and take over the throne.
Clearly this will not go well for Maleficent, and as a result of Stefan’s betrayal of her, she becomes a hardened, bitter fairy. When Stefan takes the throne and he and the Queen have a child, Maleficent decides to curse the baby in retribution. But her dark intentions are usurped when she realizes she has a soft spot for the child and begins to protect her.
Clearly this version of a classic Disney villain story is not what we, as an audience, expected, nor is it how the film is being advertised. Sure, Jolie dives into her character in delicious ways, but there is a beating heart here that surprises. The villain becomes the hero of her own story which makes the tale feel more layered and more fairy tale like than the original version of Disney’s "Sleeping Beauty" tale. So while there may be disappointment that Jolie won’t simply be the slithering evil sorceress the ads make her out to be, what we have is a far more interesting retelling of the story.
There are quite a few nods to the original that are fun to see. The shadowy arrival of Maleficent at Aurora’s christening almost looks like it was taken from the cartoon itself. While we don’t get to see the three fairy godmothers (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple) make Aurora’s birthday cake or her dress, we do get a small magical argument that occurs in the cottage.
But the fun is seeing how screenwriter Linda Woolverton ("Beauty and the Beast") takes the known conventions of the original Disney cartoon and gives them a different backstory. The truth behind Maleficent’s crow companion, the reason for her cane, the reality behind the infamous dragon, and the solution to waking Sleeping Beauty are all twisted into a new version that surprises and delights.
First-time director Robert Stromberg, who has worked mainly in visual effects on films such as "Life of Pi" and was the production designer for "Avatar," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Oz the Great and Powerful," makes a few missteps, but has a strong visual aesthetic and a flair for the fairy tale world. A few moments could have had more impact, such as when Maleficent finally allows the darkness to overtake her. She walks through the Moors, creating a much more somber world before taking a seat at her makeshift throne; this could have been more epic. Yet, within these sequences are some beautiful shots and stunning motifs.
While Woolverton’s script is a fun take on the story, it does feel rushed by the end. Certain characters get pushed to the side, such as Prince Phillip, who has nothing to do but have a brief meeting with Aurora in the woods. Aurora’s deliverance from her curse is handled fairly quickly, and a fight in the castle where a dragon gets tied up could have been easily resolved by Maleficent’ s powers. But these are minor quibbles when the film is a lot of fun to watch.
Jolie is superb as the "evil" fairy and she sells both the devious nature of the character and the heartache she endures. While it can sometimes appear she is just posing and looking gorgeous, one must recall how the character was handled in the original "Sleeping Beauty" cartoon. The character was statuesque, sly, and very deliberate in her movements. Jolie mimics that aesthetic while still making it her own. Elle Fanning is a lovely princess and imbues the character with each of the traits that her fairy godmothers have bestowed on her.
The only real misfire is Sharlto Copley ("Elysium") who continues to prove he isn’t the most subtle of actors. In each film he gets progressively more and more over the top, and here is no exception. When he arrives in the Moors calling for Maleficent in his nasally indecipherable accent, the audience could barely stifle their chuckles.
Thankfully, Jolie is in almost every scene and manages to take our minds off of any story or acting inconsistencies. She has created a fun, diabolical, and ultimately warm-hearted "villain" that audiences will oddly be rooting for by film’s end.