Sympathy for the devil...
We all know the tale of Sleeping Beauty, told so memorably in Disney's 1959 animated film version. But what if that wasn't the whole story?That is the premise of Maleficent, a live-action version of the classic fairytale that re-imagines the story from the point of view of the supposed villain. The film stars Angelina Jolie in the title role and she utterly dominates in a remarkable performance that perfectly captures the animated character whilst adding layers of emotional depth. Her appearance is so perfect that its as though she had stepped out of the original animated classic and, in her first film in four years, Jolie also reminds us that she's a very fine actress. It's good to see her back on screen and in such scene-stealing form!The film itself follows the modern trend of providing classic characters with greater backstory and giving villains a more sympathetic twist. Disney has already done something similar with Oz the Great and Powerful, where they provided a backstory to the Wizard of Oz and made the Wicked Witch a more sympathetic character. In Maleficent we learn more about the backstory of the title character and the events that lead up to Sleeping Beauty being cursed, before Maleficent reveals herself to be both hero and villain during the course of the film.
The film is narrated by an elderly woman who tells the story of Maleficent, a young and powerful faerie living in The Moors, a magical realm bordering a human kingdom. There is an antagonistic relationship between the two kingdoms and a prophecy says that only a villain or a hero can bring lasting peace. Maleficent meets and falls in love with a human called Stefan who, in his quest for power, ultimately betrays her and breaks Maleficent's heart. This sets the young faerie off on a much darker path, turning her into the villain we all know from the animated film Sleeping Beauty but not everything is as it seems.
The central premise of Maleficent is that the truth very much depends on your point of view and one person's hero is another's villain. The film's screenplay is by Linda Woolverton, who has a long history with Disney, having previously written Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Tim Burton's live action Alice in Wonderland. The film was produced by Joe Roth and Don Hahn, both heavy hitters themselves, and Maleficent marks the first time that Hahn and Woolverton have worked together since The Lion King. With all this talent already behind the camera, Disney clearly felt they could take a chance on first time director Robert Stromberg, who had previously been a production designer on hits such as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland.
Angelina Jolie is perfect as Maleficent, she dominates the film and steals every scene she's in.
However it's Angelina Jolie's show from start to finish and the star was involved in the production from its earliest stages, when Tim Burton was originally earmarked to direct the film. Jolie is perfect in the role and the producers have even suggested that the film wouldn't have been made without Jolie's involvement because they couldn't imagine anyone else playing the role. With her amazing beauty, pitch-perfect accent and Rick Baker's incredible make-up, it's hard to disagree and Jolie completely embodies the role. She's also a fine actress and creates a multi-layered character in Maleficent, making it easy to understand and even empathise with her plight.
Whilst it's clearly Jolie's show, the rest of the cast hold their own against her with Sharlto Copley giving the king of the human realm a certain gravitas and a dodgy Scottish accent. Sam Riley plays Maleficent's companion Diaval who is a black crow that also takes on human form, although in his case with a slightly dodgy Irish accent. The part of Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) is played by rising star Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) and the three fairy godmothers are played in both CG and human form by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. The cast all give their best but sometimes struggle to compete with Jolie's towering star-turn, partly because the story inevitably sympathises with Maleficent and partly because she's so good.
The film had acquired a reputation as a troubled production prior to it release and whilst there's no denying there were delays and reshoots, the results are certainly better than many critics expected. Disney definitely took a big risk trusting a $180 million production to a first-time director; in fact its a record for the largest budget ever green-lit for a novice helmer. The previous record holder was Joseph Kosinski, who directed Tron: Legacy, another Disney production. Certainly given Robert Stromberg's background as a production designer, the film was always going to look incredible and the special effects are equally as breathtaking.
The reshoots seem to have resulted from a change of heart with regards to the film's first act, rather than any problems with Stromberg's direction. As written and shot, the character of King Stefan was a human/faerie hybrid and The Moors had a faerie King and Queen of their own, played by Miranda Richardson and Peter Capaldi. The filmmakers felt they were spending too much time in the faerie world before introducing the human world and that the film itself was also running too long. So they cut out the faerie king and queen, shortening the film by 15 minutes and reshot the opening to bridge the gap. In the process they have also streamlined the story, putting Maleficent front and centre, which probably makes sense.
The film wasn't cheap but the money is on the screen, with lavish sets and gorgeous production design.
To rewrite the film's beginning and to help Stromberg during the reshoots, Disney brought in John Lee Hancock, who was overseeing post production on his own Disney film - Saving Mr. Banks. This obviously created rumours that Stromberg was being replaced by Hancock but the producers were quick to assure critics that he purely there to give the first-time director some moral support. The result is a wonderful fairytale that will delight children and entertain adults in equal measure.
The film may have cost $180 million but the money is all on the screen, with lavish sets and gorgeous production design. Lana Del Ray's erie reworking of "Once Upon a Dream" from the 1959 original is the cherry on the cake and Disney are sure to have a critical and commercial hit on their hands. Maleficent was post-converted into 3D and given the large number of visual effects it works rather well, although some scenes are quite dark, which is never ideal when you're effectively wearing a pair of sunglasses in the cinema.
Angelina Jolie is back after a four year absence with the performance of a lifetime, perfectly embodying the title role in a beautifully made and genuinely moving re-imagining of the classic fairytale. A delight for children and adults alike, Maleficent manages that difficult task of being both funny, entertaining and scary. It also retains a sense of wonder and is balanced in its portrayal of the various characters, even if Jolie and her wonderful creation dominate. Despite concerns prior to its release, Maleficent is the first big surprise of 2014 and proves that being bad is always more fun!
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