Out of all the Disney classic films, Sleeping Beauty is easily one of my least favourites. You know when you were a kid and you sometimes would watch a film every single day for weeks, well I saw Sleeping Beauty once and said 'no thank you'. I cared so little about this film that I’m pretty sure my sister and I didn’t even have the VHS for it. In any case, it always seemed like a shame to me that such a forgettable film would have one of the most iconic villains of all time. Clearly, even the people at Disney knew Maleficent was the most interesting character in that film because here we are: 2014 and Angelina Jolie is headlining Maleficent, a film that while not a masterpiece should be given a spot amongst the Disney classics.
A long time ago, deep within The Moors lived an orphan fairy girl named Maleficent. She had a peaceful life surrounded by magical creatures, but next to The Moors the lands were inhabited by humans. One day, a boy named Stefan entered The Moors and met Maleficent. A friendship blossomed and then Love. Years passed. As the humans declare war on the magical creatures of The Moors, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is pushed over the edge by betrayal.
Like a lot of people, I think I had certain expectations about Maleficent that in retrospect were ill-advised considering the fact that Maleficent might focus on a classic villain, but it is still a Disney film. Meaning that some of us might’ve wanted a darker film instead of the family friendly one we got. Here is where it gets somewhat tricky for me, the family friendly tone is simultaneously working for and against the film. It is working for the film because it succeeds in making the principal message of the film (that nothing is black and white, people are complicated, and we are all heroes and villains) understandable for kids. I have two little cousins who aren’t too keen on watching Maleficent because it looks too scary. But now I can show Maleficent to them since I know that while it is a bit scary in a few parts, the film does such a good job of putting you in Maleficent’s shoes that even a kid can understand why Maleficent behaves the way she does. Furthermore, visually the film is fairly harmless. It isn’t Alice in Wonderland, but more of a combination between Avatar and Snow White & the Huntsman. It goes from cool badass looking fairytale to overtly cute in a flash.
Besides the effective visuals, the other element reinforcing the family tone is the voice-over narration. Personally, if it isn’t film noir then your film shouldn’t have voice-over narration. At first my hate towards it was more a matter of principal, but once I understood the point of the film I didn’t mind the voice-over narration too much. The narration does sometimes undercut the darker elements of the film, but that’s purposeful so that things can be easier to digest for kids. The family friendly tone hurts the narrative even further in that it makes it more predictable than it already is. And even when the film diverges from expectations in terms of story, you can see it coming miles away. It is unfortunate that the filmmakers of Maleficent relied so heavily on many familiar and generic conventions. This is why the family friendly tone also works against the film. On paper Maleficent might be risky and unconventional, but you rarely get that sensation when watching the actual film.
In the special effects department, it is hit and miss for the most part. Some of the creature designs are boring and overtly cute. Luckily, the cute creatures have little screen-time. The ones that do not have little screen-time are the three fairies that take care of Aurora. These CGI fairies look so creepy that they immediately take you out of the film. Moreover, I understand that these fairies serve as comic relief but too much time was devoted to them, time that could've been given to Angelina Jolie. The film has an over-reliance on CGI and green-screen, which in some instances undercut Angelina Jolie’s performance. The only times where the special effects soar is during some of the initial fighting sequences and the flying sequences. Maleficent takes a page from How To Train Your Dragon and delivers some of the most striking, awesome and awe-inspiring flying sequences as we see Maleficent flying through the clouds. It captures the feeling of absolute freedom and the angelic imagery never feels campy or silly. It's brilliant and the render of the wings is excellent. That’s when seeing the film in IMAX becomes a must.
As expected, Angelina Jolie is terrific as Maleficent. One of the things that makes her performance work so well is the overwhelming excitement and passion she emits. Angelina Jolie is having such a blast playing Maleficent that she infects you with her energy, with her villainous intent. Seeing her deliver sass upon the humans is enjoyable, enticing and even funny at times. But more to the point, Angelina Jolie’s performance succeeds in that it assembles a bridge between the audience and Maleficent. She lets us in and we see/experience all the wonder, tragedy, anger, resentment, love, self-scorn, doubt and happiness that she does. Maleficent is revealed to be this empathetic and complicated woman, instead of the straight-up villain we’ve all come to know. Jolie’s performance emphasizes the complicated nature of people, and that we are not born evil or bitter about the world. It is through different experiences, good and bad, that inevitably shape the kind of person we are. Part of me wishes the film would've been less kid-friendly so that Angelina Jolie could've done more, but her performance is still great. She carries the film effortlessly and commands the screen in such an effective, intuitive and profound way that she overshadows literally everyone one else. I will say that Angelina Jolie has great chemistry with Sam Riley, their interactions are some of the funniest and more character-revealing in the film. They made me wish the film had spent more time developing that friendship.
Maleficent may be playing way safer than I expected, but as a whole the film works beautifully. Once you realize and accept that Maleficent is constructed so that children may see it and understand it, you can appreciate the film for what it is. I wanted it to be visually darker and daring, and with less cute stuff but this film would never risk alienating the kid audience. As a mother, I think that perhaps for Angelina Jolie the big appeal of Maleficent was that the film could communicate to kids that villains aren’t born evil, and that it is important to both see and understand different perspectives in order to better comprehend people and life. It isn’t just Maleficent that we misunderstood, it was also Aurora’s father (played by Sharlto Copley) who is the true villain of the film. Even with all the family friendly tones, thematically Maleficent is gallantly demonstrating the destructive nature of men, how greed and ambition corrupts, and that men (especially kings) will forever be the biggest assholes. It is all of these ideas about the nature of humanity and the brilliance of Jolie’s performance that render Maleficent into an instant-classic at least in my eyes. I may not love the film, but I cannot deny Maleficent succeeds in doing exactly what it set out to do.