Disney’s Maleficent, which purports to be the untold story of the studio’s scariest-looking villain this side of Ursala, goes to great lengths in order to preserve some old school Disney aesthetic. A few scenes, stuffed within the primarily computer-generated landscape, offer soft focus; beautiful images that harken back to Disney’s yesteryear and show an attention to the classic Disney narrative and artistic eye of its past live-action and animated films.
Its attention to Disney’s rich visual history isn’t the only reason why Maleficent is a worthwhile sideways adaption of a story we thought we knew. No, it has something to say, an interesting story of its own to tell. It gets bogged down in exposition-heavy narration that isn’t all that necessary since we know the story and can piece it together on our own. The narration, I suspect, is probably there for the younger audience members (who really shouldn’t be there anyway – more on this later).
Being familiar with the story of Sleeping Beauty, we can gloss over many of the plot details. What’s new here is swinging the focus from beautiful, naïve Aurora (Elle Fanning) over to the supposed villain of the story, the evil fairy sorceress Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). Aurora becomes a secondary character, but still just as important. What we find out is that Maleficent wasn’t always obsessed with large horrific thorn bushes, wicked curses and fearsome black dragons. There was a time when a young Maleficent was kind and trusting of the humans that she shared her world with. A trust that would eventually lead to someone she loved taking advantage of her in a cruel, cruel way.
Beneath the tedium of Maleficent’s overtly CGI-laden world, full of fairies and trolls and some sort of flying mystical fish things, is a very interesting story indeed. A clarion call to Hollywood announcing that men don’t have to be the center of every sword-wielding adventure, and that the women in these adventures don’t need men to save them in order for their lives to take on some sort of meaning. Imagine a message like that coming from such a formulaic studio as Disney.
Jolie’s screen presence is magnificent. Not too many actresses carry enough gravitas to stand there with computer-animated wings and prosthesis horns, and still be able to wield doom and dread whenever necessary. She’s perfect at displaying that smug I’m-better-than-you-and-I-know-it sneering condescension. With all her might and magic, it’s easy for her to view mere mortals with disdain and disinterest. She’s perfectly up to the task in conveying such emotion.
Now we get to the issue mentioned earlier in the review about the younger children. Parents, don’t be fooled by the MPAA’s folly. Rating this movie PG is complete nonsense. It’s dark, violent, and full of potentially disturbing visuals that may scar those younger ones you’re thinking about taking to the theater. The MPAA rarely gets movie ratings right, but this one they got really, really wrong.
Still, for older viewers, there’s meat here. What might appear as a big-budget money grab turns into something quite extraordinary. Care seems to have gone into the structure and foundation of the script. It doesn’t feel whipped together at the last second. The casting bolsters the strong screenplay and delivers on its more profound underpinnings.