I have long been a believer that Disney could easily rake in tons of dough exploiting their Animated classics, all while giving us fantastical live-action versions of the tales we never tire of hearing. When MALEFICENT was announced… I was really quite excited. Uncle Walt chose to adapt Charles Perrault’s “La Belle Au Bois Dormant” along with the Brothers Grimm’s “Little Briar Rose” – but Walt had a team of seven credited writers that worked on their SLEEPING BEAUTY and the greatest accomplishment of the film – beyond the stunning design of the film… it was the expansion of the “Bad Fairy” that they magnificently named MALEFICENT – that allowed the film to soar. Otherwise, that classic animated triumph stayed pretty true to the oft-told tale.
Enter Linda Woolverton, she’s written a classic Disney tale or two… writing THE LION KING and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the script for Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND. She came up through the animated TV series world – writing some EWOKS episodes, MY LITTLE PONY ‘N FRIENDS, DENNIS THE MENACE, THE REAL GHOST BUSTERS, TEEN WOLF and GARBAGE PAIL KIDS… But after a CHIP ‘n’ DALE RESCUE RANGERS episode – she entered the Disney world – and she’s taken up residence ever since. Working on some early ALADDIN story meetings…
Now I love BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LION KING something fierce. Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a bizarre strange marvel – and I call it a marvel cuz while watching it… I marvel at how bizarre it was. It was a sequel adventure upon the eve of Alice’s unfortunate wedding that she was being forced into. It was a fantasy escape where Alice could become more than the real world would allow her. She found her individual spirit upon the adventure and I am most curious where she takes us on the next adventure THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS…
But I’m supposed to be reviewing MALEFICENT – so I should get on with that. This time, Linda reinvents the SLEEPING BEAUTY mythology into something effortlessly magical. A voice tells us that we’re going to be hearing a tale that we may have heard before, but challenges us to see how well we remember it. As if challenging the audience to follow along closely… but also preparing us for an expanded scope.
We discover a land of mankind and a realm of the Faeries… and the story rightly pushes us towards the magical Fae culture… because really… that’s the coolest part. Ultimately we assume than in our modern world – this magical pre-history was wiped clean from the Earth by the arrogance of mankind. At least, that’s how I like to see it. So let’s explore.
Now, we’ve got a brand new director on this film. Robert Stromberg. He started out painting Matte Paintings on CAPTAIN POWER AND THE SOLDIERS OF THE FUTURE. Then moved into features – delivering amazing matte paintings on films like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD, TREMORS, FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, CAPE FEAR, NEWSIES, INNOCENT BLOOD, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and THE SHADOW. Then… he started dabbling in being an Effects Supervisor on flicks like FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, THE AVIATOR… all while still doing Matte work on Spielberg, Zemeckis, Bay, Del Toro, Clooney, Scorsese and on and on. James Cameron gave him his first shot at being the PRODUCTION DESIGNER upon AVATAR… then Burton followed suit with ALICE IN WONDERLAND… then Sam Raimi followed with OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL – and then bam… DIRECTOR OF MALEFICENT was born.
And I for one, am immensely happy to have him upon the scene. There’s not a whole lot of Matte Painters that have made the transition from that beloved art form, to the director’s chair. I always wanted to see an Albert Whitlock directed feature. Just never happened. I mean, technically – James Cameron was a Matte Painter come Director – and one of the things I love about Cameron’s cinema is his use of color and his sense of perspective. When Stromberg became attached to MALEFICENT – I knew he’d nail the look and beauty of the world Disney was employing him to bring to life… But, what about the acting. Would he fare as well? Personally, I think so. But let’s get back to the story…
We meet the character of Maleficent when she was but a young faerie, played by Isobelle Molloy. Watching this girl explore, essentially, her kingdom that she was charged with protecting… Those iconic horns topping her head and these gorgeous wings that allow her to soar. Even as a child she’s iconic and strong. You see this when the young Stefan is in trouble from a Tree Spirit she calls Balthazar, who found the boy picking a jewel from the Jewel Pond… She makes him give it back, but this human doesn’t look at her with fear… Stefan sees the beauty of the creature before him. He’s in awe to not only behold her, but to find he can communicate with her and that she’s as interested in him as he is in her. They become friends. They share what he calls “True Love’s Kiss” – and though their worlds separate them with tradition and a forest… they live in each others thoughts. Stefan, being of the world of mankind… is filled with ambition. A drive in mankind that often amounts to the suffering of others.
Some time passes and King Henry, the ruler of mankind decides to mount an invasion of the neighboring forest realm… to silence the fears and superstitions of the peoples he rules. He mounts an armored horse backed army of knights… A young, but now Maleficent conjures a defensive force of immense magic… which should’ve been enough to scary the army into instant reverse… but men… silly creatures as they are… storm into a battle that they can not win. The King, having no kin, decrees that the person that kills Maleficent will rule in his place, as his wounds from the battle… well, he hasn’t got long for this world.
Stefan sees an opportunity. He ventures back to Maleficent with the intent to kill her. He gives her a potion that puts her to sleep. She truly is one of the most powerful things known to exist. But she succumbs to the potion. Stefan takes out a blade to kill her. The crown is in his hands, all he needs do is kill this creature… but Stefan loves her. He has an internal debate at her side. How to seize the crown and not kill his secret friend? His answer is terrible. Mutilation. He takes Maleficent’s wings. He probably justifies it by feeling someone would have come to kill her. Here, he wounds her… he gets his crown… but it is terrible. More adult viewers will see this as the act that it is… a violation others may sexualize the act, but really… truly… I feel this is unnecessary. Certainly the metaphor is there if you care to see it, but this story isn’t the simple revenge tale that some folks are making it out to be. There’s a lot going on here.
Maleficent is in anguish over the taking of her wings and even more… the betrayal from Stefan. She’s ashamed by what has become of her, beyond that, she’s having to learn how to walk without the wings upon her… a life of muscles were used to having those living wings attached. She befriends a Crow, named Diaval, she transforms the Crow into a Man (Sam Riley) so she can converse with it, and makes him her wings. Diaval discovers that Stefan is now king, he has wed and they’ve had a child. There’s to be a Christening… a plot of revenge conjures inside the conjurer’s mind. It is the thought of revenge that makes her smile, the idea of Stefan’s suffering… well, it is enough to get her out of the cave. She creates a staff to walk with… She reengages with her Faerie people… She has become the Maleficent we know…
The cackling, mean… beyond scary character… only know we can see the righteous indignation behind it all… She does something terrible. She curses a baby to an eternal rest that can only be broken by “True Love’s Kiss” – a dig at Stefan. Btw, did ya know King Stefan is now played by Sharlto Copley – who plays Stefan filled with fear & guilt. A man racked with paranoia. So much so that he sends his infant daughter off to hide with the three faeries that gave the infant Aurora such lovely magical presents.
Meanwhile, Maleficent watches the child that would become the cursed Sleeping Beauty. She calls her a Beastie. Tries to hate the baby. She tries to hate the little girl. And as she continues to grow… She comes to realize that this beautiful young girl is everything she loved about Stefan, but without the corruption of Mankind. Raised by Faeries in hiding and with Maleficent’s influence, the Princess Aurora wants only to live in the magical land of the Faeries and adore her Faerie Godmother.
Then the film takes a turn… Maleficent does something wholly redeeming of her character… or tries to. But can’t. She even tries to buy into the hope of “true love” – and it’s in these sequences, where my brain began swirling… We’re veering off the tracks of what I knew about SLEEPING BEAUTY, but I’m invested in the characters and the story… and I’m trying to figure out the end game, but what I’m seeing happen on screen… Well, it isn’t at all what I thought I knew about Maleficent.
Now – there’s a couple of ways to go about handling these kinds of revelations… you can HATE THE MOVIE AND FUCK THIS SHIT… or you think about what Kurosawa taught you about perspective. Remember your RASHOMON. You gonna believe what some 17th Century French man said happened to Sleeping Beauty? Or how about those German brothers or even the brain trust behind ol Uncle Walt’s telling?
With MALEFICENT, we’re getting the story according to Sleeping Beauty herself… Like most witches we’ve learned about in history, they were powerful educated women that lived outside the control of their male dominated societies… but history’s contexts showed us these “witches” were nothing more than free spirits pursuing their own ways of life. Without the fear mongering of the paranoid men of the times, perhaps all manners of medicinal discoveries would’ve benefitted early society… but ya know… it’s better if they were burned or drowned or dismembered.
MALEFICENT dares to change a tale we’ve loved our whole life. The only parts that gave me pause were the moments too similar to the original story… those moments felt like going through the paces, but the discovery of this new story… it enraptured me. MALEFICENT is actually magnificent!
I found the story to be one of transcendent survival and empowerment. So… ask yourself, how do you want to raise your princess?
I quite enjoyed James Newton Howard’s score for this one – and I’ve been in love with Lana Del Rey’s dark cover of Once Upon A Dream for months now. And as I typed that at the other end of the house, my wife was whistling the refrain… so again, I’m glad we saw this one – and it is one I can not wait to watch over and over again on 3D Blu-Ray! It’ll be a stunning disc I hope!