Published June 2, 2014 for the film review site I created, Crowd vs. Critic. Each film is reviewed twice, once from the Crowd perspective for its entertainment value (Popcorn Potential) and once from the Critic perspective for its Artistic Taste.
“You know the tale. Now find out the truth.”
So say the trailers for Maleficent. We do know the tale: pretty princess Aurora is cursed as a baby to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die unless she is awakened by true love’s kiss, so her parents send her to live with three fairies in the woods for protection. As for the truth? Well, perhaps its bare bones are similar to 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, but Maleficent is not a mere backstory—it’s revisionist history.
Maleficent re-imagines “Disney’s greatest villain” (also from their marketing campaign) as a misunderstood, albeit flawed and angry, creature. Luckily for us, she’s a greater choice to explore than many other characters in the Disney vault. Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, for example, hardly merits an explanation of her childhood, while Maleficent’s motives for cursing Aurora are simultaneously intriguing and unclear. This movie takes advantage of the unknowns, creating incentive for her evil and even giving her fiendish raven a story worth telling.
Those who grew up tiring a VHS cassette with frequent rewinding of “Once Upon a Dream” may find some of the revisions too liberal. While the new side to Maleficent works, the new sides to other characters don’t mesh as well with memories of the animated original. Their completely redesigned personalities are often more annoying than enchanting, or they fall flatter than they did in the two-dimensional world. Prince Phillip (who should seriously consider joining One Direction if he isn’t singing with them already) would have been missed if he was written out of the script, but he adds almost as much with his minimal screen time.
If I know anything about Disney (and I’d like to think I do since I rewound quite a few of their VHS cassettes growing up), Maleficent probably won’t be the last film focusing on the “real story” of a Disney villain or secondary character. While that’s a clever twist on reusing old creative material, this installment shows some thorns in the method. It isn’t a bad idea on the drawing board, but Maleficent’s final product leaves audiences with more “meh” than magic.
POPCORN POTENTIAL: 6.5/10
Disney had reason for placing the focus of their advertising for Maleficent on its star, Angelina Jolie. The re-conceived story doesn’t hold up compared to Aurora’s legacy, but Jolie shines despite the lackluster script.
She creates a near-perfect 3-D replica of the animated character, and transforms her fiery villainy into a wounded warmth. (Her update of Eleanor Audley’s wicked cackle is inspired.) She skirts the line between villain and victim, in one scene declaring, “I don’t like children,” and then curiously holding toddler Aurora, who is played by her daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt.
In a time when Disney is exploring the future of its princess line, that take on Maleficent is an inventive—and rather sneaky—testing of its potential future. While she more obviously extends the brand because of her connection with Sleeping Beauty, this film also reconstructs Maleficent herself into a princess. In this version, she is not relegated to the mere status of fairy but is the protector and ruler of a magical kingdom. She wears horns for a crown, but her dreams for friendship, love, and a home bear little distinction from Aurora’s.
Disney wins points for moving beyond the Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen tales to create one of its own, but I can’t help but wonder if the company will beat Katniss and Co. to the punch and inadvertently kill the princess brand on its own. Despite Frozen’s still-rising box office, its narrative gaps and significant overlaps with other recent princess movies left me concerned, and Maleficent is no different. The script spends too much time explaining the backstory to the backstory and wraps with a predictable twist ending, and the budget spends too much on the creation of cutesy (but ultimately boring) woodland creatures in an attempt to distract from that.
Maleficent ranks closer to Snow White & The Huntsman than Shrek in the world of fairy tale retellings. As such, she may not gain her own section of the official princess website, but don’t expect Disney to give up the quest to reinvent the princess just yet.
ARTISTIC TASTE: 6/10
Photo credits: Movies.Disney.com/Maleficent