Jolie's range carries 'Maleficent' through rough patches
Full spoilers ahead
Creating sympathy for the antagonist is always intriguing. And it helps when the character is played by a capable actress.
That was the combination that first-time movie director Robert Stromberg capitalized on with Angeline Jolie's portrayal of "Maleficent," the evil fairy in the original Disney cartoon "Sleeping Beauty."
The change of the direction from the original story (not to mention the Grimm's Fairy Tales version) obviously would lead to differences, some good and some bad. But the focus on the title character injected a much-needed heavier tone.
Learning about Maleficent's good-natured spirit, then watching her get consumed with vengeance by past scorn shed a new light on the character. From her perspective, she isn't the bad guy, at least not at first.
Jolie is why this really works. She handles evil with grace and class. She is emotionally damaged when her wings are ripped away from her in her sleep (perhaps a clever twist to her curse of forcing princess Aurora to endure an eternal sleep, as well). She is maniacal and enjoys herself when she attacks the king's men who come after her, much like the Joker in "Dark Knight" or even Emperor Palpatine in "Star Wars Episode III," when he lets loose a creepy smile and laugh.
When Maleficent arrives at the castle for the birth of Aurora, she maintains her poise and stature with great reservation as the king and his court shrill in horror at the thought of what she's about to unleash.
But Jolie flexes her wings the most (pun intended) when Aurora is older and runs away from home. She wanders into the mysterious fairy kingdom and, surprisingly to Maleficent, befriends her. As Maleficent watches Aurora explore from afar, Jolie tries to keep a stoic shell around her persona, but realizes her heart isn't where she thought it was.
While Maleficent's journey had its moments, the rest of the characters were dull and uninteresting. The three small fairies were straight up annoying as they bumbled around throwing cake batter at each other or struggled adapting to their human bodies when they changed forms to help raise Aurora.
The biggest problem "Maleficent" had was shaking off the Fairy Tale stigma. Disney is at least attempting to recreate these cartoon stories in more realistic settings (not necessarily real-world, which it shouldn't anyway). Last year's "Snow White and the Huntsman" movie actually had gave a sense of danger, like the ending was hanging in the balance even though the audience knew how the tale would end.
"Maleficent" never did that. The whole movie had a glossy feeling that everything would end up the way it should. When Aurora is cursed and put to sleep, there's never a sense she wasn't going to get out of it. Again, this isn't easy to avoid, but it seemed like Stromberg played too much off the fact that the audience is familiar with the story. It was obvious that anything outside of Maleficent's story arc (other than maybe the king's paranoia and degradation) was merely mechanical in moving from point A to point B.
The one attempt to shake things up turned out to be quite significant, though. Part of the reason Disney's "Frozen" received so much more fare than it really needed was the different, odd and, one could argue, progressive take on love stories. In that movie, it was love between the two sisters.
"Maleficent," a movie screaming Prince Charming idioms, actually takes a sharp turn when Maleficent realizes she loves Aurora in the way that a mother loves her daughter, another form of true love. And it was Maleficent who broke the spell, not the handsome prince. Is Disney setting a trend of shedding the cliched happily-ever-after montra?
The king doesn't care that she awakens Aurora and is still bent on killing Maleficent. The end battle is strong, both graphically and in progression and climax. The whole world, really, had strong animation and cinematography.
"Maleficent" was better than the "Snow White" foray, and gives hope to more of these cartoon classic adaptations, assuming not too much of the stories change. The previews started with a teaser for "Cinderella" next year, so hopefully these keep getting better and better.