'Maleficent' Review: Angelina Jolie Shines In This Beautiful, But Disappointing Origin Story
Hollywood’s latest fairytale retelling Maleficent presents an unlikely and refreshing origin story and character study on one of Disney’s classic villains. Starring Angelina Jolie as Maleficent and Elle Fanning (Super 8) as Princess Aurora, Maleficent delves into the dark fairy’s past and how she became Sleeping Beauty’s so-called worst enemy.
The film opens with young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), the only human-sized fairy of the Moors, a bright and mystical CGI landscape filled with otherworldly creatures, not unlike the ones in Snow White and the Huntsman. Outside the Moors lies the dangerous and fearful world of men. Maleficent’s appearance may be unsettling, with great horns and eagle’s wings, but she is good and kind. Maleficent is surprised to discover a human boy named Stefan has entered into the Moors to steal precious jewels. Despite this intrusion, Maleficent and Stefan become fast friends and grow up together. On Maleficent’s sixteenth birthday, Stefan gives her true love’s kiss, or so he says.
As the years pass, Stefan visits Maleficent less often, having pursued his dream of living in the majestic castle outside the Moors. Maleficent becomes the razor-cheek-boned Jolie and unofficial ruler of the Moors. She spends most of her time soaring through the clouds and protecting her land from the local fairy-fearing king and noblemen. When her most recent battle leaves the old king fatally wounded, the old king offers a challenge to his men: anyone who kills Maleficent will be his heir. Stefan (Sharlto Copley), now grown and a servant to the King, overhears the King’s proclamation and decides to pay the Moors a long overdue visit. Though Maleficent is wary at first, she and Stefan continue their romance, culminating in Stefan’s ultimate treachery. When Maleficent wakes in the morning, her beloved wings have been sawed off. As expected, the fairy does not take this well. When Stefan becomes king and has a daughter, Aurora, Maleficent seizes her chance at revenge. What she doesn’t anticipate is how the little princess Aurora will alter her perception of true love.
I wasn’t completely sold on Jolie’s casting at first, but her performance is truly noteworthy. As Maleficent, she commands every scene with her steely gaze and restrained vulnerability. She is hardly the cruel, evil presence showcased in Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty, but rather a misunderstood, gentle being. Her impassioned speech at Aurora’s christening is delightful, as is her burgeoning interest in the princess. She is the epitome of the empowered female character Disney has showcased in films like Mulan and Frozen. Who needs a prince when the protagonist can rely on herself?
Apart from Jolie, no one else stands out quite like she does, and her performance was the only one that kept my interest. Fanning is sweet as Princess Aurora, but her constant grinning and optimism do little in terms of character development. Mostly, Aurora serves as the catalyst for Maleficent’s change and not her own. Their relationship builds the emotional crux of the film. Copley as King Stefan can be irritating, especially when he turns into an obsessive megalomaniac intent on ruining Maleficent’s life. The good fairies who raise Aurora, played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville, are easily forgettable, as is Prince Philip, played by up-and-coming actor Brenton Thwaites. I found myself hoping scenes featuring minor characters would finish sooner, so the film could return to Maleficent.
Despite Jolie’s strengths as an actor and the fantastic visuals, Maleficent lacks a compelling enough storyline. The narrative arc is inconsistent and lends to several lurking plot holes. There are no smooth transitions from one scene to the next and the film could have benefitted by pacing itself a bit slower and delving more into the history of the Moors and fairies. While the focus is on Maleficent’s character, a better plot would have made for a solid origin story.