Heartfelt "Maleficent" Sure To Delight Disney Fans

You may not know his name, but you know Robert Stromberg’s work. The special effects wizard has had a hand in some of the past decade’s most indelible film imagery, from James Cameron’s $2 billion grosser “Avatar” to Ang Lee’s eye-popping “Life Of Pi.” He spent the interim as production designer on Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland” and Sam Raimi’s “Oz The Great And Powerful,” both sizeable hits for Disney and, in hindsight, fitting mic checks for his first gig as a director. Few filmmakers have debuted with such massive undertakings, but Stromberg is as readymade a choice as any.

“Maleficent” (muh-LEF-uh-suhnt) sees the first-timer working with a smaller budget than “Alice” or Oz,” a less star-studded cast, and less familiar source material – all ingredients that might lower of expectations – but the film one-ups Burton and Raimi at nearly every turn. Stromberg’s film is warmer, funnier, and more substantive, with a visual style perfectly suited to the story. Some might decry the film as a needless redo of bona fide classic “Sleeping Beauty,” but its fresh approach to that story is precisely what makes it so interesting. Specifically, it takes a story often dismissed as antiquated and sexist and renders it openly, wonderfully feminist.

It’s a magical maneuver made more all the more impressive by its relative subtlety, leaving each viewer a choice. The film can comfortably be taken straight up as a sprawling, colorful fairy tale, or as a stark vivisection of gender politics in the world of Disney princesses. Its subtext breaks down some of the more troublesome aspects of male-female relations, yet the screenplay’s touch is light enough as to not overplay its metaphors. But these vastly different interpretations of the film are ultimately two sides of the same coin – filling enough on their own, best taken together.

Angelina Jolie stars as the eponymous fairy, beginning the film as a buoyant, winged creature before a violent betrayal at the hands of a former flame – Prince Stephan (Sharlto Copley) – leaves her wingless. Her initial innocence and eventual righteous anger are more than enough to signal the unique space that the character occupies between hero and villain, and it’s only intensified by Jolie’s unusually fiery screen presence. Consumed by hate, Maleficent lurks on the periphery of the now King Stephan’s kingdom, waiting for the right opportunity for revenge. She finally sees her chance in the birth of the King’s daughter, Aurora, putting a curse on the child at her christening.

Our antihero decrees that Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) will grow in grace and beauty through her 16th birthday, at which point she’ll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an endless sleep, only to be broken by true love’s kiss – a notion that the increasingly cynical Maleficent sees as pure fantasy. Sam Riley plays the human incarnation of Maleficent’s oddly charming pet crow, Diaval, while Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville feature as the CGI-rendered trio of pixies tasked with raising Aurora far away from Stephan’s kingdom – and all of its spinning wheels.

Stromberg’s sense of style elevates the admittedly slight narrative without succumbing to the weightlessness typical of live-action Disney fare. The film’s array of beasties – from living trees to roundish, adorable water-dwelling creatures – are CGI creations, but look as though they were imagined as practical effects, giving them a vintage theme park luster. A scene in which Maleficent and said critters literally sling mud is of one the year’s simplest, truest pleasures, and goes a long way in establishing this Maleficent as something entirely different from previous incarnations. As love and compassion slowly creep back into Maleficent’s heart, it’s hard not to be won over by her transformation – and Jolie’s wickedly charismatic performance.

The pic’s third act gets bogged down with some mindless action, but it looks slick enough that most viewers won’t mind. More importantly, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King”) is able to tie a neat bow on the themes of family and forgiveness while maintaining a narrative clarity that escapes so many modern day blockbusters. This is skillfully tiered filmmaking, certain to appeal to an array of age ranges, often for entirely different reasons. Its highs are modest, but it never shortchanges its audience on spectacle or thoughtfulness or loving but frustrated nostalgia for its source material. This isn’t the “Sleeping Beauty” that you grew up with, but in the hands of Robert Stromberg and his creative team, that turns out to be a good thing.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 30, 2014
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
MPAA Rating: PG (for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images)