By on May 31, 2014

There are some iconic characters that, when you hear about the casting of the actor in the role, you’re like: “They hit the nail on the head with that one.” Think Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix LeStrange in the “Harry Potter” movies, the list goes on. You could certainly add Angelina Jolie to that list. It’s a sign of good casting when the mere presence of someone in a certain role makes you want to see a film. I was only mildly interested at best when I heard Disney was going to be remaking “Sleeping Beauty” in live-action form- until I heard it was going to be from the villainous viewpoint of “Maleficent,” and that Jolie was going to play her.

Then I was all in, and that’s despite the fact that Jolie hasn’t exactly been hitting them out of the park as of late. It’s not that the movies she’d been doing were bad, exactly. Just sort of meh on the whole. The exception being “In the Land of Blood & Honey,” her directorial debut, which, while not a huge success by any means (and which she didn’t even act in) wasn’t an total embarrassment, either, and clearly a labor of love which might well point the way forward towards a new career for her. With “Maleficent,” Jolie applies that love to a character that she freely admitted was a beloved childhood icon, and it shows in her most committed and affecting role in many a moon.

While preparing for the film, I went and re-watched the original Disney classic upon which it is partly based, “Sleeping Beauty,” and was pleasantly surprised how well it held up. Coming at a time in which Disney films were seen as being a bit pat and frivolous, it was Disney’s attempt to be taken seriously again, which he winningly achieved in the film by jettisoning much of the sillier elements and amping up the spectacle and action, notably in the eye-catching approach to the animation style, which remains one of Disney’s most singular achievements- and that’s saying something.

Every frame looks like the true work of art it is, and if the film isn’t as fun as some of Disney’s more celebrated efforts, it looks amazing, and that final sequence with Maleficent running amok- at one point memorably shape-shifting into a massive dragon- is something to see. Combine this with the lack of typical Disney moments- i.e. far less musical numbers, minimal slapstick- and “Sleeping Beauty” becomes kind of a Disney film for people that don’t normally like Disney films so much. You can totally see a young Jolie being wowed by this over the likes of “Cinderella” or “Snow White.”

Angelina Jolie's presence looms large over the movie "Maleficent." Courtesy of Disney

Angelina Jolie’s presence looms large over the movie “Maleficent.”
Courtesy of Disney

You can also see where the notoriously wild child Jolie that looked like the world’s sexiest Goth chick and was known for wearing vials of her lover’s blood around her neck would lean more towards the villain than the willowy blonde heroine, Princess Aurora. Maleficent is bold, brassy, and take charge- when she doesn’t get invited to the party, by God- or the Devil, as the case may be- she’s gonna do something about it, and it ain’t gonna be something good. She’s a total bad-ass. Aurora…not so much.

Which brings us to the movie “Maleficent.” This is a tricky one to do because I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I fully agree that a character who’s all bad (like the original Maleficent) and all good (like Aurora), is a bit of a snooze. People IRL aren’t like that- they’re more shades of grey. The new “Maleficent” reflects that wonderfully, by positing a girl that was once a high-flying fairy that lived happily in the woods adjacent to the main kingdom, and who bridged the gap between species by falling for a mortal as a teenager.

Then adulthood sneaks in and love and power cause trouble in the neighboring kingdoms, as they are wont to do, when the mortal’s kingdom declares war on the fairy kingdom. Things don’t end well, the end result being a Maleficent gone bad, and her eventually bestowing the famous sleeping curse from the original fairy tale on the infant Aurora.

As you might have guessed, this is a complete overhaul of the material, and depending on how fanatical you are about your fairy tales, you might not like some of the changes at hand. I don’t want to give too much away, but you might have noticed that this take as described falls in line with the more recent attempt to revise old stories in different ways from unique perspectives, with varied results.

For instance, there’s the book and play, “Wicked,” as well as the Disney film “OZ the Great & Powerful,” which re-imagine the story of the “Wizard of Oz” from a more witch-heavy perspective. I liked the latter in particular- I’m actually not as familiar with the former, to be honest, having never read the book or seen the play- but I seem to have been in the minority on “OZ,” which got decidedly mixed reviews. People also had more understandably dubious feelings about the recent dueling “Snow White” movies, “Snow White & the Huntsman” and “Mirror Mirror.”

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie gets her evil fairy on in Disney’s “Maleficent.” Courtesy of Disney.

Still, you can’t blame Hollywood for wanting to mix it up a bit more, given how many times these stories have been told in the past. (Though you could certainly make a case for them, I don’t know, at least trying to create more original material more often instead of retreading stuff they’ve already done a billion times before as it is.)

For the most part, I respect what Disney was going for here. I like that they try to humanize the would-be villain, by making Maleficent’s plight both sympathetic and understandable, even if she acts a bit rashly at times. But they tread awfully close to making her almost too sympathetic, to the point where it’s actually the King that comes off as the bad guy.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fake out, but both sides certainly have their faults, and the ending glosses over a whole lot of things in order to facilitate the expected happy ending, and that’s almost too bad. There’s also a considerable amount of changes happening here that might not go over so well with some, including the decision to make the raven able to shape-shift into a human (this actually makes sense, as it gives Maleficent someone to serve as a sounding board to, without resorting to the dreaded talking animal approach) and a big change to the ending, especially insofar as the dragon is concerned.

On the plus side, Jolie manages to give a surprisingly deep and resonant performance here, despite the whole Disney thing, which often can result in performances that are little, shall we say, ripe? You feel for Maleficent, who really gets a raw deal early on, and you certainly don’t blame her for being vindictive about it. At the same time, you can see where a father might not care for his daughter being cursed and would do anything to stop or change it, so there’s a point where you’re not entirely sure who to root for, though it’s clearly meant to be Maleficent- it’s her movie after all- so the movie has to try and tip the scales in her favor so you do.

That’s a bit of a cheat, and while I can certainly see why Disney would want the lead of their movie to be at least somewhat sympathetic, it also robs the character of some of the original film’s power, pathos and chill-inducing aspects. In “Sleeping Beauty,” Maleficent is a force to be reckoned with- in “Maleficent,” she’s not so bad once you get to know her.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) gets a look at the woodland creatures in Disney's "Maleficent."  Courtesy of Disney.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) gets a look at the woodland creatures in Disney’s “Maleficent.”
Courtesy of Disney.

That said, this is one beautiful-looking movie. That’s one thing first-time director Robert Stromberg, a former visual effects artist who won an Oscar for his work on Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Avatar,” gets unequivocally right. The must-see 3D is on a par with that latter film in particular and especially shines as fairies and other woodland creatures zip in and out of the screen and in terms of the overall depth of field. This looks like a film you could step into, and what’s more, that you would want to.

I’d have to say that, overall, if this looks like your cup of tea, it probably is. If you’re one of those people that tend to prefer the originals to the remakes, though, this probably isn’t going to change your mind, but it’s still worth a look, if only for the visuals and Jolie’s magnetic and affecting performance. I just wish the film had the courage of its convictions. In the end, it may not turn Maleficent into a milquetoast like Aurora by any stretch of the imagination, but it does end up selling her short a bit compared to the original.

For that reason, I can’t in good faith go higher than a B+ with this one, but neither was I up in arms about it. “Maleficent” has enough going for it to recommend- the visuals, Jolie (who earns herself an A+), that wonderfully woozy cover of “Once Upon A Dream” by Lana Del Rey that closes the film- but not enough to put it in the same class as its predecessor, even with its own set of flaws. Warts and all, it’s hard to top classic Disney, but “Maleficent” at least doesn’t embarrass itself trying, and that’s saying something.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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