It's refreshing to finally be able to watch a animated movie from Disney that doesn't contain a soporific, soul-destroying and inevitably Oscar-nominated song. Well, not until the end credits, at least, when Lana Del Rey reprises 'Once Upon a Dream' from the original 1958 version of 'Sleeping Beauty' but by that point I could wander happily off to the restroom and ignore it. Of course, this isn't strictly an animated movie, even if it does contain so much CGI and special effects work that the only truly real things in it might just be Angelina Jolie's eyebrows.
'Maleficent' is a live action retelling of the old fairy tale with a major twist: it's told from the perspective of the villain, the fairy princess of the title, who turns out to be far more than she was ever painted out to be. Yes, this is literary revisionism at its most blatant but, frankly, I'm all for it. While many audience members view Disney movies as wish fulfilment fantasies, I take a slightly different tack. I tend to wish that the cringeworthy leads with their goody goody natures would die horribly so that the villains could take over and restore some fun to proceedings. That's exactly what we get here.
The script has been decried by critics the world over and there is indeed a vast amount wrong with it, but what most seem to overlook is that this is a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not supposed to be depictions of reality, they're supposed to be distillations of it into overly simple generalisations and wild superlatives. That's why it's appropriate that Jolie in the title role has skin as white as snow, lips as red as roses and everything else as black as the darkest night. I'm not sure how her cheekbones would be described in legend but I'm pretty sure they could cut through kryptonite.
It's also why it's appropriate that her story (and that of the world in which she lives) be so convenient and, let's face it, black and white. As a young fairy she meets a young peasant boy, Stefan by name, and they have a great time together. That is until they turn sixteen and he gifts her with true love's kiss before waltzing off to play in the mud or whatever he feels is a better use of his time than messing around with a frickin' fairy princess with awesome horns and who can fly. Idiot!
Anyway, the humans wage war on the fantastic denizens of the Moors for no apparent reason, not even arrogance. They aren't remotely equipped for such a battle and it takes Maleficent and her magic army about two minutes to wipe the field with them, which the king doesn't take well. The ambitious Stefan promptly goes to see her, cuts off her wings, and so secures the throne for himself. OK, so not an idiot but an opportunistic ass nonetheless.
And so Maleficent promptly turns spectacularly evil because female Hollywood characters just have to spend the prime years of their lives defined by what an opportunistic male ass did to them Once Upon a Time. I'm male but I cringed as much at the blatant rape symbolism in Stefan's act, with a date rape drug no less, as I did at Maleficent's refusal to rise above, to refuse to let it be the only factor that shapes her future. No, she's just a weak little nothing, however sharp her cheekbones.
For sixteen years, at least. That's when she curses Princess Aurora, King Stefan's daughter, and the real story begins. Now she's painted herself so far into the Corner of Cartoon Evil that she's about to eat puppies for fun and simply must find a way out again or the film is toast. The biggest success of 'Maleficent' is that she does, but its biggest failure is that while she does, we don't care about anyone or anything else.
Angelina Jolie is a sight to behold as Maleficent, flamboyantly adorned both with clothes and appendages, and with a command of magic that makes us wonder why anyone even dares to look at her cross-eyed. I never doubted her power to do anything she damn well pleased, which is a great gift for the lead in what anyone over sixteen must surely read as a rape revenge fantasy. She is so utterly dominant in this role that I often wondered why anyone else bothered to show up for the shoot. Of course, some did, so I should mention them.
I was impressed with Sharlto Copley's performance as Stefan, albeit mostly because I didn't recognise him with a decent Scots accent. As Princess Aurora, Elle Fanning was the happy cartoon princess she was supposed to be, which merely means that she's boring as all get out. The trio of moronic pixies tasked with keeping her away from her curse are flimsily drawn and quickly absent replacements for the sort of cutesy singing candlesticks and teapots that could find no place in a dark revisionist fantasy. Sam Riley is fine as Diaval, Maleficent's sidekick, but he spends most of the film being turned into CGI animals and back again. The rest of the cast are so ineffective that they could have been CGI too and I'd never have noticed.
No, this is Jolie's show, pure and simple. She's in charge so absolutely that we keep watching her even when there's a fire breathing dragon setting a castle alight from the inside while a host of warriors do their level best to bring it down. That's not a failure of the CGI, which is as strong as a $180m budget tends to make it. It's a reflection of Jolie's power in the role and the script's lack of imagination when it comes to anything except her character.
It does progress from beginning to end without getting caught up on anything on the way, making it surprisingly enjoyable as a ride, but it's impossible not to sit back every ten minutes or so and wonder about some new plot convenience or wild oversight that decided to show up. After all, the story only works if we buy into the concept that the bitter and twisted fairy princess, resonating with evil, doesn't decide to descend upon the castle with her magic army the very moment she discovers Stefan has been crowned king to burn the entire thing to the ground then and there.
If a Disney-hater like me can enjoy the ride and snicker at the traditionally good guys getting their comeuppance, then you may just be able to do the same. Just watch it as if it's a cartoon, not a long overdue cinematic version of post-modern revisionist literary culture. I'm still waiting for that, but it sure ain't gonna come from Disney.