It is perfectly within the realm of the cinematic creative process to revisit familiar plotlines and reinterpret them in a modern context. In the hands of a skilled screenplay writer and director, everything that happens between “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” — the bookends of every fantasy tale — is susceptible to malleable moulding and repackaging. So, when Disney’s latest offering opens with the promise to “tell an old story anew”, it heightens expectations of a quirky twist to a familiar fairy tale.
Over the next 100 minutes or so, Maleficent narrates the backstory to the Sleeping Beauty narrative: of the circumstances in which Princess Aurora, daughter of King Stefan, is accursed to a death-like sleep from which she can be revived only by the kiss of true love. In Disney’s 1959 rendition of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, the unapologetically evil fairy godmother delivers the curse to register her pique at not having been invited to Aurora’s christening. But that reason is evidently too frivolous by 21st century protocol.
Disney has therefore conjured up a past to account for why Maleficent, who starts off as a benevolent little winged, do-gooder fairy, goes on to being spiteful towards King Stefan. Their life trajectories intersected in the past — when Stefan was a commoner, they even shared a fleeting romance — but, blinded by ambition, he betrays her. And a scorned Maleficent wreaks vengeance with that curse on Princess Aurora.
So far, so good. But in looking to project Maleficent — played splendidly by Angelina Jolie — as being less than evil and infused with a softer side (even towards the child she had cursed) the storyline loses the edge that her character was born to essay.
It is Jolie’s film all the way, and the few scenes in which she portrays flashes of unadulterated evil are what provide some spark to the story. But far too often, she relapses into maudlin emotions and silly slapstick that do little justice to the evil that, in the original delineation of her character, resides in her heart. And the forced infusion of a feminism-inspired contour to the Maleficent character and the overall plotline only grates: without giving anything away, the kiss of true love that revives Aurora is administered not by a Prince Charming…
Robert Stromberg may have won an Oscar for art direction (for Avatar), but his directorial debut is less awe-inspiring: he is excessively preoccupied with special effects, but even these aren’t eye-popping, even in 3D. It’s a dark and brooding film overall — the dim lighting for much of the film sets a sombre, forbidding mood, which cannot conceivably endear itself to young audiences. In the U.S., for instance, the film is rated PG, which is somewhat odd for a fairytale fantasy ostensibly targeted at children.
That goes to the core of why Maleficent lacks sizzle: its violence and dark mood may put off children, while softening the ‘evil’ Maleficent character renders it too syrupy for adult entertainment. The film runs the risk of inducing sleeping sickness in its audiences, from which even a kiss of true love from Angelina Jolie may not revive them.
Genre: Fairytale fantasy
Director: Robert Stromberg
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley.
Storyline: The backstory to the Sleeping Beauty narrative, as told from the perspective of the ‘evil’ fairy queen Maleficent.
Bottomline: It’s Jolie’s film all the way, but even she can’t break the spell that induces sleeping sickness in the audience.