Robert Stromberg // 2014 // 97 mins
** This review contains spoilers **
'You know the tale, now find out the truth' boasted the trailer for Maleficent, Disney's latest retelling of a well-loved classic. Angelina Jolie is the titular villainess; the fierce protector of a mystical moorland who is stripped of her wings and her faith in love by a farm boy whose desire for the throne overpowers his friendship and history with the fairy. In an act of revenge Maleficent places a curse on the first-born daughter of her former companion King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), before the sun sets on the girl's sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into an eternal sleep. The only way to break the curse is through true loves kiss, a concept that both Maleficent and Stefan have come to believe is not real. The princess, Aurora (Elle Fanning), is placed in the care of the pixies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Flittle (Lesley Manville) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and as Maleficent spies on the child's upbringing she begins to realise that the girl may be the key to restoring peace between her magical land and the human kingdom.
Jolie soars as a powerful fairy whose optimism is replaced by hatred after a betrayal by a childhood friend and who finds redemption in the young girl that she has cursed, but this is not Maleficent. Villains are always best when they have a layered and tragic backstory, a sympathetic history that explains how they became evil, yet writer Linda Woolverton has failed to realise that these backstories should work to enrich and humanise the villainous aspects of the character, not override them. Since her initial introduction in 1959, Maleficent has earned a reputation as Disney's most notorious villainess, and in attempting to paint the character as an anti-heroine Woolverton has essentially undone a 55 year legacy. Jolie revels in the characters darker traits, perfectly recreating Eleanor Audley's deliciously evil work in the infamous christening scene, and does a solid job of infusing her with lighter, more personable moments. Her work during the scene in which Maleficent awakes to find her wings taken by Stefan creates a deeply affecting, harrowing sequence that emphasises just how brilliant the actress can be. The problem is that this screenplay and characterisation, however good in their own right, do not represent the character that we have loved for so long.
As Aurora Elle Fanning is once again radiant, her infectious smile and screen presence making her every bit as delightful as the princess should be. The rest of the cast is less successful, with Staunton, Manville and Temple reduced to little more than incompetent, squabbling children and a one-noted Copley proving yet again that his performance in District 9 was nothing more than a fluke. Sam Riley is both wasted and unnecessary as the human form of Maleficent's raven Diaval, while Brenton Thwaites as Prince Philip genuinely does nothing except look handsome. Although this was always going to be the Jolie show, it's unfortunate that little to no effort was made to flesh out the majority of the supporting characters, who are all important to the story in their own way.
The individual charged with bringing this story to life is prominent visual effects and production designer, but first time director Robert Stromberg. Placing the man responsible for the gaudy visuals of Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful at the helm of what should have been a strong character piece says everything that needs to be said about the direction Disney decided to take this story in. There are pointless CGI creatures by the bucketload and any opportunity to to use visual effects is taken with gusto. Though at times the film is beautifully shot, the excessive CGI takes the place of gothic atmosphere and further diminishes any chance that was left of this film representing the Maleficent we all know and love.
Like Charlize Theron and Helena Bonham Carter before her, Jolie feels like a perfect, inspired casting choice for a classic Disney villain, who despite her best efforts is let down by an underwhelming screenplay and mediocre film. Not only is she stripped of her wings, Maleficent is deprived of what made her such an iconic villain. Gone is the dark, hypnotic sequence in which she beckons Aurora to the spinning wheel, gone is her transformation into a fearsome dragon and what is left is the story of a bitter woman that flirts with evil but is ultimately charmed by a child and shown that life ain't got to be so bad. It's a story that works in it's own right, but to dress it up as the untold story of Maleficent is to undermine some of Disney's best work.
Everybody loves a villain, and a retelling of the events of Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent's perspective held so much potential. What Woolverton and Stromberg have created though is not a retelling, they have altered a much-loved story beyond recognition and justified these changes by having Aurora herself declare that the story we grew up with was incorrect. Maleficent deserved so much more, Jolie deserved so much more, we deserved so much more.