Maleficent. Family/Fantasy (rated PG, 97 min). Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copely. Directed by Robert Stromberg. Showing in both standard and 3D formats in Mill Creek Cinema (McKinleyville), Broadway Cinema 8 (Eureka), and Fortuna 6 Theaters (Fortuna).
There are always gaps in the stories we are told as children. Clearly we weren’t given all the information about Sleeping Beauty. For one thing, this story is not actually abut the princess enchanted into a magical coma. Instead, Robert Stromberg’s latest family blockbuster is about the “evil” faery godmother. This darker, newest version of the Disney classic answers all the questions we had about the 1959 original: Why wasn’t Maleficent invited to the princess’s christening? What was up with those horns? And why was that particular godmother really so very P.O.ed?
Fans of faery tales, and those of us who remember Fantasia or grew up on Arthur Rackham illustrations, will be delighted at how stunningly beautiful the movie’s moors and magical forests are, as well as the elegant, elaborate creatures who live there. Lord of the Rings enthusiasts will be happy with the wide array of roaring tree trolls, which do a lot of mugging at the camera as they as they fight waves of sweaty, screaming, iron-clad men. There are also a couple of dragons, which are duly exciting, and the garden variety of both real and fake British accents. So again, there’s something for everyone.
Elle Fanning is a good Disney Princess: she is Aurora –giggling, innocent, and a bit boring. Sharlto Copely (of District 9 and Elysium acclaim), is reliably intense; his is a rags to riches subplot wherein he rises from orphaned peasant to crowned king, giving up his humanity for the sake of his ambition. Morally weak in the beginning of the story, paranoid to the point of delusion by the end, his King Stephan (Aurora’s father) makes for a cruel and shallow leader, but Copley’s performance is interesting due to its complexity. He is obviously terrified by how powerful Maleficent is, by his own sense of guilt, by how tenuous his grasp on the throne is. Angelina Jolie, playing the title character, is fantastic. Every scene she is in is incredibly well-done and powerfully emoted. Expressions flash over her face like ripples in a pool of water: there are moments where the character feels something only the actress is aware of. At one point Maleficent looks in on baby Aurora and though the audience can see there’s a shocked kind of tenderness on Maleficent’s face, the fairy regains control in a second, flashing a grimace so frightening it surpasses its cartoon original. But though the character hasn’t yet admitted to maternal concern, Jolie knows it’s there; she’s perfectly in step with Maleficent, an astoundingly precise conduit to both Maleficent’s conscious and unconscious selves. And with the exception, perhaps, of Imelda Staunton (playing the fairy godmother Knotgrass), no one has more fun in this movie than Jolie. And you’d be hard-pressed not to revel with her.
Sam Riley should be mentioned, too. As Diaval, the crow-turned-man sidekick who was rescued by Maleficent from a sadistic farmer, he is charming, emotionally present, wise. Serving as an often ineffectual conscience, Diaval offers many of the film’s lighter moments: he takes offense at being turned into a man rather than a crow, whining she’s stolen his beauty; in another moment, one fraught with potential peril, he sulks sarcastically at how he is not essential to the plot. But that’s where he’s wrong: his character shows the importance of loyalty, and that even in the darkest moments of one’s life –and when one is a woman with crazy horns and hands that are constantly spewing green flames, one’s life can get pretty darn dark –one can find a reliable, if odd, kind of friendship. Riley is also one of those rare actors who shows his feelings with his eyes, and does so quite remarkably. He’s someone to watch out for in the future.
There is a twist on the movie that I can’t talk about without giving it away. But I will say that Maleficent passes the Bechdel Test, and everyone who gets that reference will enjoy this latest take on the Disney story.