For audiences, there are two challenges with Disney’s new feature film Maleficent. One is how to say the title character’s name — it’s pronounced muh-lef-uh-suhnt — and the second is whether one can believe that Angelina Jolie can play the villain.
Fortunately for Disney, the latter makes you forget about the former. Just call it Sleeping Beauty: The Empress Strikes Back.
Jolie, who is also a producer on the film, deliciously delves into the character of Maleficent, one of Disney’s iconic villains, from Sleeping Beauty. The story originated from Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant (“The Beauty sleeping in the Wood”), however, most are more familiar with the Grimm fairy-tale version. To recap, a beautiful princess has been cursed into an enchanted sleep until she is awakened by a handsome prince.
The 1959 Disney animated film introduced us to Maleficent, an evil witch who cast the spell, declaring that Princess Aurora would fall into a deep sleep before her 16th birthday by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel.
In the 2014 reboot, Maleficent tests the boundaries of the adage “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.” She’s introduced in the opening sequence as a winged warrior protecting the Moors, an enchanted forest kingdom filled with fairies and illuminated beings, from the human King who wants to conquer the land.
After being defeated by Maleficent, the King issues an edict that gives the throne to the first man who avenges him and kills the winged creature. In steps Stefan ( District 9’s Sharlto Copley), an ambitious man who has ties to the Moors and rekindles a flame with Maleficent only to commit the ultimate betrayal — clipping her wings.
Stefan unwittingly unleashes the vengeful spirit of Maleficent, who crashes the christening of Princess Aurora, sending her into a deathlike slumber on her 16th birthday that can only be broken by “true love’s kiss.”
As the story unfolds, we watch Aurora grow up with the help of a trio of fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville) and watch the hardened heart of Maleficent melt at the child she calls “Beastie.”
Undoubtedly, Jolie’s performance will be touted as elegantly evil, but it’s Elle Fanning’s effervescence as Aurora that really makes this film glow. That’s never more so than in the scene when Aurora has her first spoken interaction with Maleficent in the Moors:
Aurora: “I know you’re there. Don’t be afraid.”
Maleficent chuckles: “I am not afraid.”
Aurora: “Then come out.”
Maleficent: “Then you’ll be afraid.”
Aurora: “I know who you are. You’re my fairy godmother.”
Maleficent’s crow counterpart Diaval (Sam Riley) also has some nice comic moments. And don’t miss Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter, who has a brief and memorable cameo as toddler Aurora. While there are plenty of babies and young children seen in the film, the film’s dark tone and mild violence may be too much for children younger than 8.
First-time director Robert Stromberg, who won Oscars as a production designer for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar, created a stunningly beautiful film that didn’t need the 3-D experience to enhance its grandeur.
For an epic retelling, the film is terse at 97 minutes leaving audiences to wonder if there was more to the back story that would have given more context to the relationship between Stefan and Maleficent.
But maybe that wasn’t the intention. “We’ve respected the classic,” Jolie said in a recent interview. “We’ve tried to bring you what you love about this story.”
Who knew love could be devilishly good?