In today’s storytelling world one must venture into darkness in order to be taken seriously. A story has to muddy the waters between good and evil, creating complex characters who share both laudable and detestable characteristics. Stories that trumpet old-fashioned heroism and tie up their plot points and conflicts neatly are scoffed at as being too “nostalgic” and “overly-sentimental.” In this context, it is no surprise to see Maleficent come onto the big screen, a film billed as a revelation of the true story behind Sleeping Beauty and the infamous Disney villain. What is unexpected, however, is the fact that Maleficent embraces the best of both the old and new worlds of film-making, coupling a dark emphasis on the female antagonist (or in this case the protagonist) with a refreshing sense of wonder and a celebration of the power of goodness and love. Yes, first-time director Robert Stromberg is trying to have his cake and eat it too, but against all odds he largely succeeds.
Maleficent justifies its existence primarily in how it recasts the title character (Angelina Jolie) within a broader context surrounding the story of Sleeping Beauty. In the opening sequences of the film we are introduced to Maleficent, a young orphaned fairy-girl, who lives within the enchanted Moors that are kept distinctly separate from a quarrelsome and greedy neighboring human kingdom. She is a kind and caring creature who falls in love with the poor but ambitious farm-boy Stefan (whose adult character is played by Sharlto Copley). Stefan and Maleficent grow apart as he pursues power and wealth in the King’s court, while the young fairy eventually becomes the guardian of her mystical home. But when the human kingdom encroaches upon the Moors, Stefan seizes an opportunity to rise from his lowly position by capitalizing on his former love with Maleficent. In a tragic betrayal, Stefan manipulates Maleficent into a position of trust and vulnerability before removing her beloved wings, using them as a trophy to earn the right of succession from a dying monarch. Having her defining feature torn from her and what she considered true love broken in agonizing treachery, Maleficent becomes the villain we see in the original Sleeping Beauty, the audience now understanding the motivation behind her infamous cursing of King Stefan’s daughter as one of revenge. But while this premise seems to establish a fascinating revenge flick, Maleficent, to its great credit and benefit, becomes something quite different.
Maleficent’s villainous turn is depicted in a nuanced fashion. Thanks in large part to the remarkable performance of Jolie, Maleficent is a character who is easy to empathize with. Her turn from a loving and innocent child to a vengeful and bitter queen is sad to behold primarily because it is so understandable. To lash out in revenge is only human, and to do so in response to such a reprehensible and sickening betrayal as Stefan’s is not only something we get but something we desire deep within ourselves. Stromberg, however, is careful in his direction to never revel in Maleficent’s villainy. Her acts of vengeance are always depicted in stark contrast to her admirable nature in the beginning of the film, and instead of smug satisfaction as Stefan gets his just reward, the audience is confronted with the suffering of innocents because of Maleficent’s actions. Profound sadness is the emotion aroused by these early scenes, for the audience longs for Maleficent to return to good rather than embrace the evil she has been overcome by. In a similar fashion, Maleficent’s vengeance pushes an already disturbed and reprehensible Stefan further into his own twisted madness, only exacerbating the conflict between the two and their kingdoms. In this way, Stromberg wisely and astutely validates the experience and deep hurt of Maleficent while never justifying her evil acts, an important distinction that has a profound impact on the story as a whole.
For as dark and complex as Maleficent is, it just as often revels in the light. The cinematography and effects-work paints a lush, colorful and vibrant fantasy world which the audience, regardless of age, can explore with a child-like sense of awe and wonder. The innocence and optimism of Aurora (Elle Fanning) is infectious, and it is her deep love of all creatures, human and fantastic alike, that reminds not only the audience but Maleficent of the goodness that can and must survive in the face of evil. It is through Aurora that Maleficent will eventually be redeemed, and the story arc is one filled with a remarkable depth of feeling and hope, challenging the right to vengeance and instead pleading for love. James Newton Howard’s majestic orchestral score also provides much of the fantastical enchantment that occurs during many of the film’s most visually stunning and emotionally charged moments, anchoring the tale with beautiful choral-work and his trademark emotive string and brass passages. Maleficent is definitely a modern take on an old fairy tale, but never once does it forget the bright and hopeful spirit that makes these stories so enticing. Also worth mentioning is Sam Riley’s surprisingly touching performance as Maleficent’s servant Diaval, the rare henchman who contributes to character development and not simply services the plot.
Maleficent is certainly not a perfect film, and its attempts to reconcile both the modern and the traditional Disney models do not always work (the three fairies who watch over Aurora feel a bit out of place in the story) and some early plot points could have been given a bit more screen-time to flesh out, but when the contrasting approaches come together, complementing one another, the results are magnificent. Stromberg has crafted a type of film that we need to see more of, a film that grapples with evil and darkness, but never loses sight of the hopes that make life worth living: the human hopes for forgiveness, beauty, resolution and love. When the evil is tangible and the heartbreak profound it makes the catharsis all the more potent, the redemption all the more powerful, the joy all the more joyful. In Maleficent these hopes are allowed to triumph, as they rightly should, supplying audiences young and old with a thoughtful and enchanting cinematic experience.