I don’t really know if Sleeping Beauty needed to be re-told again, but if we’re going to get one, at least the one we get is like Maleficent, which delivers a different take on the classic story. This time around, the point of view from which we watch is Maleficent’s, and that delivers a more sympathetic approach to the storytelling. In this version, the “evil witch” of the story is a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character, while the true villain is that of a power-hungry king. Aurora — the soon-to-be “sleeping beauty” — is more of an afterthought. Hey, at least it’s doing something different.
The film opens with a young Maleficent as the largest and most powerful of all the faeries in the forest kingdom called the Moors. The kingdom is at war with the humans, so isn’t it a surprise when a young boy named Stefan appears and the two become quick friends. But, years pass and eventually Stefan becomes close with the king. After a failed conquest of the Moors, Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) is tasked with killing his former friend. Instead, he drugs her and then cuts off her wings as “proof,” saving her life in the process, but the film really doesn’t want to dwell on that or even make you consider that.
Now, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) turns to the darkness. She puts on a dark cloak, gets a servant (Sam Riley) whom she transforms into any number of enemies, and plots her revenge. Eventually, Stefan has a daughter, Maleficent curses her, and you think you know the rest from there. But you don’t, the film asserts, and it begins to show you a much deeper relationship between Aurora (eventually played by Elle Fanning) and Maleficent, as well as greater depth to one of Disney’s classic villainesses.
There are changes, as there should be, like how everything gets resolved and what the fate of certain characters winds up being. That’s for the best. It wouldn’t work to try to adhere strictly to what happened in Sleeping Beauty. It’s an adaptation, or a different universe, or something that makes it different from the 1959 film. It follows the same general path, but does enough to make it feel fresh.
The main key to its success is Angelina Jolie’s return to the big screen as the title character. The role could have easily been hammed up or given little thought or depth, but Jolie is better than that and showcases a surprising range in what’s likely going to be an underappreciated performance. This is a classic “phone it in and take the paycheck” role — something that someone like Sharlto Copley most certainly did — but Jolie puts far more effort and nuance into the role than is called for, and you can tell how much she enjoys playing this character. I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney and Jolie decide a sequel is warranted.
If there’s a secondary wonderful element, it’s in the visuals. Maleficent was directed by Robert Stromberg, who is making his directorial debut but has worked on special effects for films like Avatar and Oz the Great and Powerful. Those worlds were wonderfully rendered, and Stromberg does the same with Maleficent. The Moors is an imaginative and weird creation, filled with all sorts of bizarre creatures and imagery, all of which have been created with great CGI.
Maleficent attempts to balance a more mature take on Sleeping Beauty with some rather silly humor and less-than-intelligent scenes. The humor is appreciated, but some of the moments in the film make the rest hard to take seriously. I did get a kick out of many of the comedic moments — assuming they were supposed to be comedic; otherwise, I was laughing at unintentionally funny moments — but some scenes went too far and wound up making the film too silly.
It did bounce back, however, with some other points that really pushed its PG rating. There’s blood in the film, as well as a couple of surprisingly violent battle scenes. There’s death, there’s the aforementioned removal of Maleficent’s wings — after she is drugged, I’d like to remind you — and a couple of other moments that make you question how the film managed to secure a PG rating. Then you remember that Disney is a big studio and the MPAA does what it wants, and all your questions are answered.
Does the film have problems? Sure. Apart from Maleficent, the supporting cast is woefully underdeveloped. Aurora feels more like a plot device than a real character. Sharlto Copley really didn’t seem to care about his performance or this film. Maleficent’s initial “evil” transformation happens too quickly, as do a few other parts; it’s possible the studio trimmed the film to meet a specific running time. It’s another movie that does not need 3D — although at least it looks okay this time around.
Angelina Jolie returns to the cinema with Maleficent, and she does so by stealing every scene she’s in. Jolie commands the screen, which is hard to do with so much (great) CGI being placed all around her. The film itself provides us with a different take on the story of Sleeping Beauty — and in particular, that film’s villainess. It has its share of problems — like how nobody apart from Maleficent matters, and how some of the film feels rushed — but it’s a pretty decent watch and doesn’t feel like a waste of time. If you’re itching to see a different take on Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent provides you that and a great turn by Angelina Jolie.