MALEFICENT is a very beautiful and surprisingly moving film, and deserves Oscars for set design and costumes. It succeeds because, whereas it would have been very easy to have been swept up in CGI and epic-battles, the film finds a very hypnotic, dream-like voice.
The central problem I had with a previous fairytale reimagining, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, was that it attempted to make a serious film out of a story that was not meant to work that way. There just, quite frankly, isn’t enough depth to the story of Snow White for it to ever work as a bleak, meditative drama. I initially felt the same was true of the story of Sleeping Beauty, and in particular the 1959 Disney adaptation. That film, which is one of my favorite Disney films and my absolute favorite of those made within Walt’s lifetime, worked so well because it is 100% a “style over substance” film. That phrase often has a negative connotation, and so a way to better phrase it is that it’s about the Storytelling more than Story. I mean this as praise, not criticism, and think that Walt himself would have agreed with me. The film knows it’s telling a fairytale, and it puts its focus on atmosphere and graceful storytelling over story. As such, when I first heard of a film focusing on Maleficent, I was unsure if I wanted this story to suddenly be given depth. This didn’t look like some Gregory Maguire-style satire or subversion: this was going to be a fantasy film that would stand alongside SLEEPING BEAUTY. But I was pleasantly suprised.
MALEFICENT works because it loves its source material and stands as a companion to the 1959 film. The entire first act gives us a backstory, starting with Maleficent as a child and a brokenheart motivation. However, once the events of SLEEPING BEAUTY begin to unfold is when the film finds its way, giving us a very beautiful, haunting, lyrical atmosphere. Aside from SLEEPING BEAUTY, the other Disney movie this will be compared to is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, given the involvement of writer Linda Woolverton and producer Don Hahn, and sure enough, many moments of sophistication, including the charming narration, are reminiscent of that masterpiece. But it was actually a different version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST that I found myself thinking of more: the Jean Cocteau classic. Cocteau’s film also put its story aside in favor of atmosphere, giving us beautiful, haunting shots of just Belle, the Beast, and their loneliness. Here the hypnotic quality comes in Maleficent wandering the woods watching over Aurora, and in the subtle bond that she builds with her crow/henchman Diaval.
It is also in this leisurely-paced middle portion that Angelina Jolie successfuly turns Maleficent into a full-fledged character. It would have been easy to camp up the performance (like Glenn Close in 101 DALMATIANS) or make the character pout angrily, but Jolie gives the character the sophisticated grace she deserves. However, Sam Riley is the surprise breakout star of the film as Diaval, who never fights with his mistress, never camps up what could have been a silly character, but manages to create a likeable character as Maleficant’s only true friend. These characters, like the classic fairytale archetypes that have come before them, are figures that emote simply by existing.
Die-hard Disney fans like myself will get a kick out of seeing classic scenes recreated, and even many lines of dialog lifted directly. This might backfire a little bit in that, once we become exposed to so many nods and recreations of scenes from the 1959 film, we start wondering the inevitable: “Why didn’t they just make a direct remake of that movie?” Why are the three fairies given new names instead of Fauna, Flora, and Merriweather? Why does this Maleficent never get to say her most famous line: “Now you shall deal with me, and all the powers of Hell!?” And while the new score by James Newton Howard is beautiful and at times breathtaking, why not use the more of the original Tchaikovsky ballet? As it stands, MALEFICENT is not quite a remake and not quite a stand-alone take on the material.
I realize that I’ve barely mentioned Aurora or King Stefan in this review, or even talked all that much about the main plot of the film, but that’s sort of the point. This movie isn’t really about the story, neither was the 1959 film, and neither still was the Cocteau film. This is not to undermine Woolverton’s work as a screenwriter and the skillful way she reinvents an old story and puts a new spin on it. But this is a film that knows its strengths and hits a nerve the way a classic fairytale should, with its simplicity, imagery, and timeless themes. Whereas other movies rely on their CGI and epic battles, only to soon be forgotten, MALEFICENT lingers like a soothing old lullaby. It’s a beautiful film that stays with you long after you reach its fairytale ending.