I’m pretty sure I saw Sleeping Beauty (1959) at least once, but it was so long ago I remember nothing about it. So I’m sure I missed some of the nuances in this revisionist version of that story, in which we discover that the evil fairy Maleficent who curses the Princess Aurora had her reasons. I confess that I wasn’t expecting much from this one, and I think it worked better for the low expectations. There is at least one bit of revisionism (the nature of True Love) that I thought worked very well, it strikes some nice grace notes on the friendship between women, and although its visual design is derivative of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth (as are just about all big budget fantasies these days) it does have a nice look as well. Director Robert Stromberg has a background as a production designer, and it shows.
That said, one of the biggest weaknesses of Maleficent for me was the twee nature of Fairyland. I suppose they were trying to make the film comfortable for at least older children, but the candy colored fairies were a real turn off to this middle aged child. Fairies should be dangerous, as Maleficent herself is. There are other dangerous, even deadly fairies in the movie, but they are balanced (and to my mind undermined) by the twee ones. But this has always been Disney’s besetting sin, so nothing new there, I guess.
The cuteness and bland innocence bleeds into the character of Princess Aurora as well, making her a less than compelling figure in the drama. Fortunately the movie is not about her, it’s about Maleficent, and Maleficent is allowed to be dark and conflicted. Angelina Jolie’s voluptuous face is perfect for the role and is practically a special effect in itself, especially as modified by the prosthetic cheekbones. She’s frequently shot from below to heighten the bony angularity of the face that sweeps up into the whorling horns that top her head. Maleficent looks every bit the fey fairy queen, and although she isn’t omnipotent, she is the most powerful figure in the story, leading her fairy troops into battle against the invading human armies. The dramatic focus is fixed on her decisions about how to use her extraordinary magical power. She is a spurned and violated woman. Is she still capable of love?
Well, it is a Disney movie after all, so I guess you know the answer to that. Still, it’s good to see a fantasy action film with a powerful woman at the center, in which Prince Charming is a bit of an afterthought and the key thing is the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. It’s undermined by the tweeness, but I liked it better than, for example, last year’s bloated and overbearing Oz movie. Still, it doesn’t hold a candle to Mirror, Mirror (2012), which is funnier, naughtier, and far more original in its visual design. Jolie is almost the whole show here; she’s good enough to make do with the banal screenplay.