There was a time when Disney was, creatively and financially, on shaky ground. The studio’s animation unit experienced a renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and continued with blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, leading to the fusion with Pixar that flourishes today. But before Disney reclaimed its status as one of the most durable and reliable entertainment forces in the world, there was that period of the uncertainty in the early to mid 1980s.
Prior to the launch of their “adult” unit, the Touchstone Pictures division (which released the successful, PG rated Splash in 1984), the studio was making grittier fare for grown-ups as well as children. In addition to ambitious sci-fi efforts like Tron and The Black Hole, there was also Dragonslayer and the brilliant, ahead-of-its-time and unapologetically scary Return to Oz.
Films such as these remain rich, underrated works that tapped into the Brothers Grimm themes and approaches found in the studio’s earlier, scarier animated works (like Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia). One of my favorite things about Maleficent is how it bravely marches into the darkness and aims to dazzle children and their parents in equal measure.
This live-action prequel/re-telling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is grand, smart and always impressive, both in scale and in the chances it takes. Angelina Jolie stars in the title role, as the wicked fairy-turned-outcast, whose rage against a tortured king (Sharlto Copley) makes her a pariah to all but a peculiar bunch of forest creatures (this is, after all, a fairy tale). The eventual presence of a beautiful young girl (played as a 16-year old by Elle Fanning) causes Maleficent to consider altering her mission of vengeance.
Jolie never hits a false note, as this perfect match of performer and character brings out a rich, layered portrayal of a wounded soul. One would expect Jolie to vamp it up and, on occasion, she embraces the theatricality of the role. But she’s also heartbreaking, particularly in an early scene where Maleficent discovers she’s been betrayed, horribly, in a manner that leaves her disfigured. The rawness in Jolie’s acting is far greater than you’d expect. Same with the film’s emotional climax, an unexpected twist on the classic True Love’s Kiss ending, where Jolie movingly finds the heart of her character’s pain and longing. Best of all, while Maleficent is the film’s sympathetic center, she’s always really scary to look at.
The other casting choices are bold but not as successful. Copley’s offbeat, angst-filled performance belongs in another movie and fails to create a window for the audience. I like him a lot as an actor yet, as much as I hate to say it, a more conventional choice would have worked better. Fanning is a sensational actress but her role showcases her luminous smile and little else. There’s also Maleficent’s shape-shifting bird, a character I loved when depicted by a CGI creation and not when awkwardly embodied in human form by Sam Riley.
The ample spectacle sometimes overshadows the emotional effect of the story. The explosive climax seems especially over the top in contrast to the quiet, touching scene that leads up to it. Nevertheless, the vision of effects wizard turned director Robert Stromberg (making a knockout debut as a filmmaker) is confident, vivid and stunning from the first scene. The splendor of this world brings to mind Avatar and The Lord of the Rings, as do the action sequences.
At the center of it is Jolie, perfectly creepy and compelling in equal measure, in a turn that embodies the film’s gutsy ambition. As Lana Del Ray’s haunting, gorgeous rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” played over the end credits, I walked out spellbound. For kids who are older than eight and parents who want a fairy tale that’s edgier, but as open about female empowerment, than Frozen, look no further.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)