Recently, there has been a fair amount of backlash against so-called "pink princess culture" and some serious discussions about creating more complicated, significant roles for women, especially in children's entertainment. With that in mind, I was pretty excited to see Maleficent, the new film starring Angelina Jolie's cheekbones that retells Sleeping Beauty, focused on the experience of the villain.
Maleficent opens years prior to the events of Sleeping Beauty, depicting the youth of Maleficent (Ella Purnell) who, despite her name, was a gentle and happy fairy, protecting the magical moors from the greed of humans. Maleficent finds young love in a poor boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins), but his ambition takes him away in search of higher success. Years later, after losing to her in a battle, the king wants Maleficent dead. Stefan (Sharlto Copley) goes to Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) pretending to warn her, drugs her, and cuts off her powerful wings. The violation breaks Maleficent's heart and she sets her sights on revenge, finding her opportunity when Stefan, now the king, has a daughter. You know what happens from there, but this film puts a twist on the old story, focusing on Maleficent's relationship with Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) as she's raised by the fairies Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda), and Thistlewit (Juno Temple).
I thoroughly enjoyed the way that the story diverted attention from romantic love onto other types of love. While post-Frozen it doesn't feel like the most original plot choice, it resonates with Maleficent's character as this film develops her in a really beautiful way. Between the captivating performance delivered by Angelina Jolie and the effervescent Elle Fanning, it's a pleasure to watch the story unfold. While I saw most of the twists coming a mile away, it was still fun to see them happen. Maleficent's friendship with a raven, Diaval (Sam Riley), who she turns into men and wolves and dragons at-will, further illustrates the variations of true love and the shades of gray in Maleficent's character. In the relationships between these three characters, moreso than in the predictable fairy world vs human world dynamic, I think the film sends a wonderful message about love and encourages the audience to think about good and evil in more nuanced ways.
It is not as easy to explain what I didn't like about Maleficent. The biggest problem, I think, was some serious heavy-handedness in the narrative. The voiceover that begins and ends the film was perhaps, maybe helpful for children in the audience but it was so cliched that it detracted from the story as it unfolded. Some of that quality bled over into the acting as well. Jolie's performance is interesting and subtle in a lot of the film, but toward the beginning her yelling of lines feels forced. Maleficent was really powerful and the yelling didn't do much to convey that power. Finally, some of the camerawork focused so intently on Jolie's cheekbones that it felt like the same iconic, sneering shot of Maleficent over and over again. Once or twice would have been cool, as the makeup and costuming, as well as Jolie's natural bone structure, create a stunning image, but the shot was used ad nauseum.
For a magnificent performance by Jolie, gorgeous visuals, a moving story, and some serious cheesiness, I rate Maleficent 3.5/5 stars.
Maleficent was written by Linda Wolverton based on the story by Charles Perrault. It was directed by Robert Stromberg and runs 97 minutes. Raged PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.