I can’t remember how many times I saw the Disney Classic Sleeping Beauty, not more than twice I reckon. The titular character is the chief villain in that film and indeed the Disney universe and though I am not too fond of that section of Disney mythology my viewing of Maleficent had me digging through the history books, okay Wikipedia, to gain some more insight into the most sinister of Disney villains.
As it turns out, I learnt nothing new; She is still just the wicked fairy godmother who, after not being invited to a royal christening, takes things a little too personal and curses the infant Princess Aurora to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die before the sun sets on her sweet 16. Things are a tad different here and the film follows the like of Oz, The Great and Powerful in giving us a back story to this enigmatic character brought to life by Angelina Jolie.
The tale begins with a young and innocent Maleficent befriending a farm boy, Stephan, who’s snuck into her forest to steal some precious jewels. That isn’t their final encounter and they continue to see each other and subsequently grow closer and closer. As they grow older though, he stops coming around to her disappointment. She however appears seemingly content with life in the ever vibrant woodland. All this while, there are tensions between her and the human kingdom who threaten her land. Years later, the now-dying king promises his realm to anyone who can kill Maleficent and the now adult Stefan (Sharlto Copley), heart filled with greed and ambition, sets out to complete this task.
The first ten minutes or so really tells us nothing of the characters and for me served only expository purposes. From the moment we hear the kings wishes, we can see what is coming and the film for me really starts here. Stephan and Maleficent have a warm reunion and some spooning on a hilltop follows. Stefan laces her drink with sleeping potion, prepares to murder her after she’s passed out but maybe because of feelings or nerves or just plain spinelessness he can’t follow through and instead slices off her wings as proof for the king.
It is the ensuing moments that lead us to the crux of this film. Maleficent is stripped of the very thing that defined and empowered her by a man. I’m not going to bite at the feminist and woman empowerment bait but it is at this point that we see one of the few striking images in this film; the distressing sight of the disfigured Maleficent crying in pain and then rage, abused and stripped bare by a man and by extension, the fundamentally flawed human nature.
We watch and more importantly understand her transformation from innocence to the woman scorned with pain of betrayal backing her fury. Maleficent is sent into a dark place by these events and the mood of the film follows her. Her evergreen sanctuary turns into a den of gloom as she comes to be the evil we all read about as children. The scars received from her attempts to drink from the mirage of true love inform the cynicism with which she curses the baby Aurora at her christening.
Special mentions go to Sharlto Copley who is armed with a decent Scottish accent and a flowing mane that suited him. Following his acts of treachery he is tortured by guilt and descends into an abyss of paranoia that frankly, I watched with glee. He represents an archetype that has its roots in the attempts to build the tower of Babel to the heavens. He speaks of his ambition to get into the castle early on as a child and he does get there, becomes king but gets no satisfaction but is instead on the threshold of insanity.
Aside the drive surrounding Jolie’s pain and transformation, the film has little memorable to offer. The animated world director Robert Stromberg, a long time production designer with Oscars under his belt, presents to us isn’t special. The creatures are your everyday CGI with nothing truly eye catching, the score is more ever present than everlasting and doesn’t pull at your strings like Disney at its best does and no songs!!!
Nevertheless it plays to its major strength in Jolie. She is as mesmerizing as ever her stunning and steely silhouette is etched into your head walking out of the screening. She delivers her lines with icy precision amidst her dark regal glamour and well chiseled cheek bones, you can’t miss those. Her later relationship with Aurora is very clichéd but you can’t help but warm to sight of a cute baby squeaking “up, up” at Maleficent’s feet without fear or apprehension.
As far as female Disney villains go I would have loved to see her take a crack at Cruella De Vil especially with those murderous cheek bones. The only thing that keeps this film from being flat during the 90 or so minutes of runtime is the essence it brings to the table at its grim heights which truly resonates with anyone having half a heart.