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MALEFICENT… a surprisingly good fairytale upgrade

Posted on July 16th, 2014
Posted on July 16th, 2014

by Coop Cooper

In a Medieval era-like fantasy kingdom, a wise, winged fairy named Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) guards her enchanted woodland and its creatures from the harm of outside forces. She befriends a human boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who strays into her domain and they develop a deep bond. Years later, Stephan’s father aims to conquer the woodlands, prompting a vicious battle with Maleficent and her creature army. After Maleficent critically wounds his father, Stephan begrudgingly betrays Maleficent, but opts to amputate her wings instead of killing her. Stephan eventually becomes king and the embittered Maleficent retreats into solitude.

Here’s where the classic Disney “Sleeping Beauty” story kicks in… When news arrives that Stephan has had a baby girl named Aurora (Elle Fanning), Maleficent invokes a vengeful curse that dooms Aurora to a never ending sleep on the event of the girl’s sixteenth birthday. The only antidote to this curse once it sets in is a kiss given out of true love. Stephan exiles Aurora to the countryside to be raised by three good fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) in an attempt to thwart the curse. Since the inept fairies continually fail to keep the pure and joyful Aurora safe until she is sixteen, Maleficent finds herself in the ironic position of protecting the child.

Musical or not, it appears fairy tale flicks have made a comeback if the success of “Frozen” was any indication. I liked the Broadway musical “Wicked” which was my introduction into this recent trend of revisionist fairy tales. Like “Wicked”, “Maleficent” takes a classic fairy tale villainess and tells the same story from her perspective, showing that she wasn’t really a villain after all, only a misunderstood misfit. If I had to compare “Wicked” to “Maleficent”, I’d say “Maleficent” has the stronger story and a much more interesting heroine.

Jolie already has a strange, otherworldly look, so her transformation into Maleficent is striking. She looks both frightening and beautiful at once, but it’s her sympathetic moments that give her performance weight. The growth and emotional arc of her character is the most satisfying aspect of the film. She goes from innocent to heartbroken, enraged to remorseful, spectacularly heroic to ‘fairy godmother’ throughout the course of the story. Jolie has played a lot of cool characters but this one nearly takes the cake.

The supporting characters don’t fare quite as well as they are not given time to fully develop. Sharlto Copley might have pulled off his tragic King Stephan if he had gotten to do most of the talking instead of the narrator explaining his problems for him. Elle Fanning didn’t come into the film until about halfway through but this story makes her more of a plot device than a fully realized protagonist. Sam Riley who plays Maleficent’s shape-shifting minion Diaval gets a few significant emotional scenes acting alongside Jolie. I saw some potential A-list talent in him.

In the early scenes where Maleficent still has her wings, the flight scenes appear to be directly cribbed from Dreamworks’ “How to Train Your Dragon”. This rubbed me the wrong way at first, as if Disney was trying to rip off a visual style from Dreamworks… but then I got over it. I’m more concerned with the rushed nature of the storyline. Although it clocks in at a standard hour and a half, it seems another ten minutes of character development instead of narration could’ve fixed that deficiency.

I didn’t expect much from “Maleficent”, so I got much more than I was hoping for out of it. It’s in a nice zone between “Snow White and the Huntsman” which took itself way too seriously and “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) which reveled in silliness. The very clever twists and turns that reveal Maleficent as the story’s hero is a fascinating study of how to adapt and improve upon original source material and inject a bit more heart into it.

Now I’d like to see someone revise “The Jungle Book” and make Shere Khan (the tiger) the hero. Although a new animated version of “The Jungle Book” is slated to release next year, something tells me they won’t be revising the story that drastically.

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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