Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" is one of the company's most well-known films. Released in 1959, the animated classic was the basis for the iconic Sleeping Beauty castle, which serves as the architectural anchor for the original Disneyland theme park. The film also introduced audiences to the Disney villain, Maleficent. The stark contrast of Maleficent's dark nature with the innocence of Princess Aurora made her an instant hit, with the character making multiple appearances in Disney properties over the years. Maleficent has even made her mark on video games, appearing in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Now, "Maleficent" promises to tell the untold story behind the character, promising more depth than just a stereotypical villain.
"Maleficent" opens with a narration, telling audiences that the magical land of the Moors and the kingdom of the humans were at odds, with the human king determined to claim the treasures of the Moors for himself. As the strongest of the fairies, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) was responsible for protecting the Moors, and she does so in an impressive fashion, with a fantasy battle sequence that could have been at home in "The Lord of the Rings." Behind her strength, though, is a naïveté that is exploited, and Maleficent is betrayed by one she trusted.
The betrayal hardened her heart, causing Maleficent to be driven by anger and vengeance. Unfortunately, the sequences in which the titular character truly lets loose are few and far between, though what's here works thanks to a masterful performance by Jolie. It's not just the makeup, either. Jolie throws herself into the role, displaying a combination of cold and callousness that is a sharp contrast to her elegant beauty.
Fans of Sleeping Beauty will appreciate the blessing of the princess scene, which is re-created as it occurred in the animated film. It is at that point where the story really diverges from what we saw in "Sleeping Beauty."
Although it is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, "Maleficent" doesn't focus on Aurora (Elle Fanning). Instead, the film wisely keeps its focus on Maleficent, showing how time and circumstance slowly effects change in the character. It's a progression that you can see in Jolie's mannerisms, moving as she does from initial disgust to actually caring for Aurora. One of the film's key sequences, where the two meet face to face for the first time, only works as well as it does because of how Jolie's Maleficent handles the situation.
While the focus on Jolie's performance is the movie's strongest point, it's also the singular hook where the film hangs its proverbial hat. With the exception of Sam Riley, who plays Maleficent's loyal, shapeshifting raven, Diaval, everyone else in the movie phones it in. Fanning's Aurora simply goes through the motions, while King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is a one-dimensional ass. Given the history between Stefan and Maleficent, the script missed a huge opportunity to plumb the depths of a complex relationship, instead going with the simple answer of "greed." As for Prince Philip, (Brenton Thwaites), he's nothing more than a distraction for Aurora.
Visual design is another positive, with the Moors serving up a vibrant fantasy ecosystem. A mix of CGI and live action, the sequences in the Moors are visually striking. They also benefit the most from the film's 3-D treatment. The effect is noticeable, and it's not used for cheap scares. Rather, the 3-D in "Maleficent" is used for depth, offering up the illusion that you're looking out a window at the enchanted forest.
Outside of the Moors, the designers kept in mind the major elements of the 1959 film. Given that the story changed, a number of those elements had to be redesigned, but they still make appearances here, just in a re-imagined form.
Ultimately, "Maleficent" is both a showpiece for Jolie and a film that firmly rests on her shoulders. Any shortcomings are outweighed by the strength of her performance and the authenticity she brings to the character. "Maleficent" may not be as dark a film as some hoped, but it's still a solid movie that is family friendly and provides plenty of eye candy.
"Maleficent" is rated PG and has a running time of 97 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX 3-D.
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