June 3, 2014
Walt Disney Pictures
I’ve always enjoyed the storytelling technique of literary revisionism. That is, looking at a well-known story from a new perspective and from a different character’s point of view. Similarly, I used to love a series of Marvel comics called “What if...?” What if Spider-Man became the Green Lantern? What if Iron Man battled the Fantastic Four? What if the Hulk weren’t quite so angry? That kind of thing. These literary devices allow the reader to revisit a well-worn tale or character, and see it anew, this time fuller and more fleshed out as a result of having traveled down a new path. One of the best examples of this, and surely one of the major influences on this week’s “Sleeping Beauty-esque” film, “Maleficent,” is “Wicked,” the novel by Gregory Maguire that tells the tale of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and all the trials and tribulations she endured before the events of “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s fun, pretty dark, and razor sharp. I haven’t seen the musical, but from the look of it, it’s a completely different animal. The novel’s central premise is a kind of “sympathy for the devil,” a conceit shared with “Maleficent,” wherein the character who was originally the villain is now the hero. This may disturb some people, even annoy them to their core, but for me, as I said, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
“Maleficent” begins some thirty or forty years before the events of “Sleeping Beauty.” A magical land called “the Moors,” teeming with fairies, boggins, gnomes, a walking trees, sits just adjacent to a neighboring kingdom of men. Naturally, the men don’t look too kindly toward their magical brethren, and before long a war breaks out. Maleficent, strongest of the fairies, full-size with huge feathered wings, craves peace, but will not allow the armies of men to cross her borders. Well, all but one, as it turns out. From her adolescence, Maleficent has harbored a secret friendship with a peasant boy named Stefan. The friendship gradually grew into something more, but the boy’s ambition and hunger for power lead him to leave Maleficent, breaking our fragile fairy’s heart in the process. And that’s not the worst of it. After a final, heartbreaking and, frankly, disturbing betrayal, Stefan manages to seize the throne of his kingdom, marrying the old king’s daughter and siring a daughter of his own. In an effort to soothe understandably sticky relations between the Moors and Stefan’s kingdom, three fairies (you’ll recognize them from the 1959 animated version) agree to come and gift the new child, Princess Aurora, with magical blessings. There’s another fairy, however, who also wants to bless the child. You probably know the rest. Pricking the finger on a spinning wheel, endless sleep, true love’s kiss, yada yada yada. Naturally, it doesn’t all turn out quite like you remember it.
I enjoyed “Maleficent” a lot more than I thought I would, though it definitely has some problems. The trailers made it look either overly dark or overly goofy, but I’m pleased to say that the tone was nicely in the middle. In fact, the look of the film was very nice, from the effects, to the costumes, to Angelina Jolie’s exquisitely crafted cheekbones. It was interesting how much of the original animated version was drawn upon for the film’s style. Maleficent herself looked great, but that could also be partly because Angelina Jolie has a kind of alien beauty about her. The three aforementioned fairies are obviously patterned after their animated counterparts, but here, instead of being sweet and quirky, the three are simply nitwits. I also liked the story, although, in this post-”Frozen” age, it’s pretty obvious how the whole thing’s going to turn out. One of the weak links was the dialogue, which is somewhat stilted and dull, though does retain the somewhat stodgy sense of old fairy tales. At least no one ever deigned to call our hero “Mal.” There are script problems, too. I know Stefan’s character, as a boy, is turned to the dark side, so to speak, but only because the voice-over narration tells us so. His character’s path is more like an acute triangle than an arc.
This is not the case with Maleficent, however, who is well written, as well as well acted by Jolie. She’s, naturally, the star of her own movie, and she definitely carries it. Unlike the manic “Alice & Wonderland” or the grating “Oz the Great and Powerful,” this modern retelling strikes a nice balance, taking itself just seriously enough without overdoing it, putting the audience to sleep in the process.
“Maleficent” is rated PG for fantasy movie scares and violence. It’s pretty tame, but parents may want to think twice about bringing the very small ones.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.