Someone high up at Disney clearly loves the musical Wicked. The first evidence of this is Oz the Great and Powerful, which is a remake of sorts, but there’s more. In fact, I believe they must have had some sort of round table meeting in which they tried to think of as many ways as possible to replicate elements of that successful stage show in their own films.
First of all I think someone must have suggested writing a story around two sisters, one of whom has dark and uncontrollable power. Then another bright young spark put forward the emotion driven songs, full of harmonies and lyrical overlaying. I imagine an unimaginative intern, desperate to contribute something, blurting out ‘Get Idina Menzel, she’s awesome!’ and that’s how they came up with Frozen. I think we can say that the artistic decisions informing that film, no matter where they came from, paid off.
Following the megabucks earned by Frozen they must have got together again and this time someone had a real eureka moment. ‘Wait’ they said excitedly, ‘this idea of taking a classic villainess and showing her side of the story, could we do something with that?’. ‘Yes’ replied the woman to her left, ‘we have plenty of witches in our back catalogue. How about Snow White’s mother?’ Everyone picked up the idea and started running with it. ‘Lets do Ursula’ shouted some guy, ‘we could finally explain why she used to live in the palace.’ ‘Magica De Spell’ yelled a nerd but no one knew who he was talking about so they ignored him.
Then Linda Woolverton, successful screenwriter of Beauty & the Beast and Alice in Wonderland, stood up and confidently exclaimed ‘Maleficent, we should do Maleficent, and what’s more we should get Angelina Jolie to play her.’ That would have been that, the meeting was over.
However it happened, a Maleficentric retelling of Sleeping Beauty is what we’ve got following a Disney trend of producing live action remakes of their classic cartoons. This started in 1996 with 101 Dalmatians but has really stepped up a pace recently with Alice, this film, next year’s Cinderella, the Idris Elba as Shere Khan Jungle Book and the just announced new version of Beauty and the Beast.
Critical opinion on Maleficent has been divided. Empire Magazine called the film tiresome. Jolie looks good as the ‘evil’ fairy, they say, but it’s a great costume more than a great role with her doing little more than sulking around in a forest. Conversely SFX Magazine said it’s magnificent and Jolie is breathtaking in the title role. One reviewer, who shall remain nameless but writes for a leading UK broadsheet, described it as “more Perry (Katy) than Perrault (Charles)” but I wonder if he spent too much time thinking that up to have paid proper attention to the movie. Certainly Rotten Tomatoes, flawed as their system is, gives it a very even score of 50%.
Well, do you know what? It’s fine. If you go expecting a faithful retelling of Sleeping Beauty you’ll be disappointed but if you just want an epic fantasy story for kids then it won’t let you down.
The film starts off with a previously unknown back story for benevolent young fairy Maleficent and the man who would one day be Sleeping Beauty’s father King Stefan. So far so feasible and his unimaginable betrayal of the fairy leads up to the famous scene at the baby princess’ christening. This moment from the classic animated film is re-enacted pretty faithfully and Jolie as the bitter and vengeful sorceress is delicious but from here the film drifts far away from the narrative we know. As it turns out the story of Sleeping Beauty was a total fairy tale.
Events as they are known and accepted are as happily thrown aside here as when Tarantino disregarded WW2 history in Inglourious Basterds but now as then, you just need to go with it.
This new plot is perfectly engaging but it isn’t as clever as it would have been if they’d tried to make it fit around the familiar beats. This is something the musical Wicked actually did very well, apart from some inconsistencies with the fate of The Scarecrow, but this is one aspect they haven’t tried to emulate here. Still, this does free them up to tell a different tale and it is one that works well enough and it is certainly a less sexist fable now that the women aren’t all simpering girls in need of rescue, bumbling home makers or evil witches.
The story’s original title character is played here by the brilliantly talented, 16 year old, Elle Fanning. It is tempting to write her performance off and certainly some have. Empire said this Aurora is a giggling moron but that isn’t fair as it is a deceptively hard part to get right.
Fanning is essentially playing a Disney Princess and it is tricky making that fly in a live action context. Enchanted deftly illustrated the ludicrous nature of such characterisation in the real world and other films, such as Snow White and the Huntsman, have had to go to extremes to get past it.
It clearly wouldn’t work to have Aurora as a Snow White style sword swinging warrior princess here so they are left to find the difficult balance between sweet and insipid. At the beginning she does come across as an airhead but give the girl a break, she is working with that awful gift of unfailing happiness given to her as a baby and the three good fairies that have raised her are idiots. It’s no wonder she comes across as a little vapid. By the end she is headstrong and empowered and manages to be so without completely discarding her romantic side so I think that’s a win.
The film’s biggest misstep is that Maleficent, the most badass and psycho of all the Disney villains, is just not evil anymore. Her temper has been totally tempered. She has moments of spiteful vindictiveness (cursing a baby and all that) and it is interesting to see the character wrestle with the consequences of this but most of the time she is just being a little superior and disdainful. She doesn’t even have anger management issues.
The brief moments of malevolence we get just serve to show how great a performance this could have been if Jolie had been allowed to go full panto the whole way through. That could have been truly unforgettable because when she good she is very very good but when she is bad, she is wicked. Seeing Angelina Jolie get her teeth properly into that would have been amazing. As it is, what we have is a story of a woman violently scorned, her unforgiving reaction and the way in which she comes to terms with the innocents she has hurt in her thirst for revenge. It is perhaps a more grown up and sophisticated story than that of an evil witch revelling in the pain she causes but it is not nearly as much fun.
Of course, as you will know from the posters and publicity, no matter what’s in her heart, Maleficent looks fairly formidable. The five year old Aurora is played by Jolie’s own daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, apparently because while she was in costume no other small child would go near her. You could well believe it as the design of the outfit and make up is superb.
In fact the design of the whole film is stunning. First time director Robert Stromberg is a visual effects artist and production designer from almost one hundred movies including Life of Pi, Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, The Golden Compass, Pirates of the Caribbean and Pan’s Labyrinth. While that is a mixed list in terms of overall quality, all of those films look amazing and so does this. The land of pixies, magical trees and mermaids is beautiful but the harder edged human world of armour, fire and castles is equally well framed and shot.
With my last point I’m going to risk a bit of a spoiler but I’m guessing that most people reading have already seen the movie or are being asked to do so by their children so I’ll proceed. If you are a fairy tale nerd yourself, skip forward a couple of paragraphs. Right, having taken aspects of Wicked and fed them into Frozen, there is one key bit from that film that is replayed here. Once again we are presented with the notion that true love may not just be between a boy and a girl.
This was refreshing in Frozen but to use the same idea here just seems a bit obvious. It would have been fine if Frozen had not been watched by that many people but it is the fifth highest grossing film of all time and has been seen by 123,261,740 people (approximately) so it isn’t a revolutionary concept anymore.
All in all though, Maleficent is very far from being the messy infant/tween fantasy some people are accusing it of. It has some good points and some bad but it will appeal to children and will keep adults entertained too providing they don’t demand too much. It is just a kids film but it’s not a bad one. It isn’t as good as Sleeping Beauty though.
Is this one for the kids?
The film is rated PG and isn’t even really at the higher end than that. Maleficent is no more of a frightening character in the flesh than she was in cartoon form. Angelina Jolie is intimidating in the costume but young children have had plenty of time to get to know her as a devil horned and eagle winged softy before she puts on the leather and cape and gets freaky with the magic green mist so it isn’t disturbing.
There are some battle scenes but they are bloodless. If your littleuns have sat through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for example, then they can certainly handle this.
A character does get quite badly mutilated at one point but this is likely to be more unsettling for grown ups than children as the implications will go over their heads. To them it’ll probably be no worse than Buzz or Woody losing an arm. I took my five year old daughter and she was totally fine with all of it. She’s no toughie either, she was scared by The Lego Movie.
The ISWYS Test:
1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?
Maleficent scores an easy three here just as it would on The Bechdel Test. Yes, the protagonist has her moments of darkness but she is pushed into it by a very very bad man so we can forgive her that.
As a feminist revision of the original story I think it works. I would be interested on other people’s views on this but Maleficent is a strong and ultimately just character and even Aurora is brave and knows her mind. I think the name ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is only actually used once as well, which is good as it reduces the girl to the ultimate levels of passivity and objectification when you think about it.