It would have been easy to throw a bunch of lavish CGI special effects at the screen and simply restage the classic 1959 as a live action remake, but thankfully, that’s not what Disney have done here. Real love and care have been lavished on this production, teasing out an entirely new perspective on the timeless tale and imbuing pathos and multifaceted depths into the iconic Mistress Of All Evil.
The film starts out by showing Maleficent in her youth as she protects the peaceful magical land of The Moors which shares a border with the kingdom of the humans. A chance encounter with a young human boy turns into friendship and eventually more however the vain and ambitious human boy eventually betrays Maleficent in the worst possible way, using it to elevate himself to the throne.
Thus we dovetail into the more familiar elements of the story. Years later, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and his queen are blessed with a baby daughter and the three colourful fairies from the film (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) attend the christening to bestow their gifts on the child. Maleficent also attends and places the legendary curse on the young princess Aurora, meaning she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday and fall into an endless sleep. As in the cartoon, the King orders the three fairies to take his daughter and care for her until the curse expires. Unlike the original, however, this story is told from Malifecent’s point of view so instead of the expected trio of wise, tender-hearted fairies, they are portrayed as selfish, bickering and incompetent, ending up on the sidelines of the story the film is telling. Forced to surreptitiously look after the baby so she survives to allow the curse to be fulfilled, Maleficent and her shape shifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) find themselves coming to care for Aurora. Meanwhile, King Stefan begins to fall to obsessive madness, preparing for the day when the curse is thwarted and Maleficent comes to take her revenge.
The main cast are excellent, with Elle Fanning particularly appealing as the beautiful and innocent Aurora. Sharlto Copley manages to retain some shreds of sympathy in his dark portrayal of the flawed and callous King Stefan but the film absolutely belongs to Angelina Jolie, who delivers a career best performance as Maleficent. She is a revelation here; giving an astonishingly subtle and nuanced performance that perfectly manages to balance the vindictive evil and wounded innocence of the character. She manages to juggle moments of real darkness with moments of adorable comedy, seamlessly shifting from one to the other as Maleficent’s vengeful righteousness begins to crack as she spends more time with her goddaughter. It’s almost impossible to imagine the film working without her, and the quality of her performance makes Maleficent’s ever so slightly implausible character arc feel authentic and convincing.
Although it takes some liberties with the traditional flow of the story, the film still makes use of the iconic imagery from the 1959 animated version, such as the trademark green flames, the wall of thorns and the ferocious fire breathing dragon.
The film marks the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg (although John Lee Hancock, director of “Saving Mr Banks” helped out with some reshoots to the opening of the film), a special effects artist who worked on “Avatar”, “Alice In Wonderland”, “Oz The Great And Powerful” and his experience shines through. The film is spectacular to look at and both the human and magical realms are wonderfully realised. The Moors are positively teaming with weird and wonderful creatures, vibrantly brought to life with fantastic design and real personality.
I’d been pretty sceptical about Disney’s “Maleficent”, the live action adaptation of their animated classic “Sleeping Beauty”. It had spent a long time in development, and the idea of making live action versions of the Disney classics seemed like a lazy, CGI-fuelled cash grab. I could not have been more wrong. “Maleficent” is a terrific achievement, taking the well-worn and beloved elements of the original and by placing those overly familiar facets in a brand new context with a fresh perspective breathing new and unexpected life into the tale. The plot and structure are tighter than the similar “Oz The Great And Powerful” but it has the same comforting fairy tale feeling, making this perfect family entertainment.
No matter how much you love the original Disney cartoon, I’m betting this will become your favourite version of the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’. If this is what we have in store for Disney’s other adaptations of its classic back catalogue, then I am very excited about the whole new world of magical entertainment that’s coming our way.