The Brothers Grimm, as well as other poets and novelists, hold the original ideas that many of our beloved Disney children's tales are based upon - a truth many people forget even to this day. If you choose to see "Maleficent" with the preconception that producers are "destroying" the versions we knew so well as children, go ahead and read this to see the original stories (and dark, depressing, adult-rated themes) that tales such as 1959s animated "Sleeping Beauty" were based upon.
With that in mind, and knowing the history of Disney bringing many dark tales into a lighter vision for children to marvel at, I still went into "Maleficent" with the slight notion that I was going to see yet another film that gives us either too much back story on the motivations of a villain, or a darker retelling of a children's tale for the basic sake of the 21st century's love for needlessly darkening children's fare. I despised 2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman" for that last reason alone, and also because there wasn't enough purpose for the Huntsman and the film just felt like a reason for director Rupert Sanders to get a blowjob from Kristin Stewart (which is all fact).
"Maleficent" begins and immediately I just shut off emotionally. I try to engage myself into the world they show us, but when the opening shot is a sweeping landscape that is 100% CGI in a time when Peter Jackson could film "Lord of the Rings" in real environments and simply add CGI touches to it, I was expectedly disappointed. We are introduced to Maleficent as a fairy child, and how she falls for a human boy named Stefan. They meet in the Moors, a magic place outside the human realm that many humans dare not to go. Over the years the two fall in love until Stefan becomes distant from Maleficent, which is ridiculous to think because I don't know any human women that can fly or look like Angelina Jolie. Maleficent focuses her efforts on protecting the borders of the Moors from the humans that hate the magic beings that lie beyond.
One day the human king wages war on the Moors, and we are subjected to the kind of violent, dark, CGI-infested battle scene one would come to expect from a movie that seemingly is in the vein of the aforementioned "Snow White" film. Men are crushed and beaten until Maleficent defeats the king, and sends him retreating back to the castle. The king vows revenge, and declares that any man who can vanquish Maleficent will be rewarded with the throne upon his own death. Sure enough, the man who takes this deed is a grown-up, power-hungry Stefan (Sharlto Copely, the actor who played Wikus in one of my favorite films of the past ten years, "District 9"), who then betrays Maleficent by drugging her and chopping off her wings, leaving her with bloody stumps as a Charles Manson-like version of an anniversary gift.
Up to this moment, I'm still at odds with the film. The scene is very disturbing and happens early on as to get the film focused away from the back story of Stefan and Maleficent, and more on the motivations of Maleficent and her turn to darkness. She incorporates a raven as a spy, and transforms him from man to beast as she pleases. Through his information, she learns of the king Stefan's marriage to another woman, and the birth of his daughter, Aurora. All these things are just asshole cherries on top of a mountain of shit that would make any woman go fucking insane in rage.
Now, back to the wing removal scene. First off, Angelina Jolie is magnificent in the film, especially as she transforms from the dismembered fairy Maleficent, into the dark, evil witch Maleficent. Her demeanor and delivery become more deliberate, wily, and sinister, and I ate every moment of it up. But watching her reaction to waking up and realizing the one thing that made her who she is is removed, I felt a lot of depth to the anguish that not only the character felt, but that Jolie herself put into the moment. Angelina Jolie, before production of this film, was widely known for her elective mastectomy for fear of breast cancer. One could only imagine the kind of loss and fear she had felt upon the surgery, and to me felt very similar to the moment her character felt in the film. Knowing this about the actress in the part gives her acting more gravitas (a word I've waited to use for weeks now) that any other actress may very well have not been able to pull off. Then again, as a film viewer, it's reading between the lines and into a performance (and the work an actor/actress puts into the role) that can make watching some films more enjoyable.
A weird thing happens. As Maleficent crashes Aurora's coronation (interrupting the spells that the three fairy godmothers were putting on her as a gift), all clad in the black clothing some may remember from the cartoon, I became much more engrossed into the picture. The performance by Jolie is juicy and vile, and her smile is just as evil as you could imagine from an evil witch. She curses Aurora to fall into a deep slumber on her 16th birthday, and the rest is as you know.
From here on out, the film takes its liberties, and I was all the more happy with them - moreso than I had expected I would be. Many smaller elements are changed for this "re-imagining" of the story, and a couple BIG ones are changed. What makes this film more successful in my mind are the choices director Robert Stromberg and writer Linda Woolverton make with the Grimm brothers source material and the animated Disney story we all knew as children. What really struck me was the definition of the word "true love" and how many of us have come to apply it in our lives.
I will not spoil any of the outcomes or major changes in this film, but what I will say is this version takes the expected road of a "re-imagining" by showing a nicer side of a villain - a thing I usually would complain about - but makes the twist pay off as to make us better understand the motivations of an evil witch. Certain people we see as villains are more in a gray-zone than a black-and-white one.
Of the major three Disney "princess" stories - "Cinderella", "Snow White", and "Sleeping Beauty" - I feel "Sleeping Beauty" is the one held in the least regard, which is why changing certain aspects to tell a different story aren't going to be all that aggravating to die hard Disney enthusiasts who cherish what they think are the "original" source materials. When I heard the name Maleficent, I had no idea that that was the name of the witch from the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Snow White, on the other hand, is a much more well-known property which is why I think many people didn't like the darkened version of "Snow White and the Huntsman" as much as "Maleficent".
Director Robert Stromberg was surrounded by a fantastic production crew, most notably cinematographer Dean Semler (Oscar winner for shooting "Dances with Wolves") who allows for some dreariness in the darkening of Maleficent's world, but does wonderful in using the environment of the practical locations to make the film feel very storybook. Composer James Newton Howard gives the film a wonderful score that hints at John Williams, and keeps a light on the magic of the movie rather than the darkness of the moments.
Overall, the film does feel like it is greatly influenced more by "Lord of the Rings" at times than the magic of the Disney cartoons, but Angelina Jolie's performance brings the film to higher standards that other "re-imaginings" just couldn't attain. The movie hinges on her performance, and the relationship she forms with Aurora, aka "Sleeping Beauty", the girl whom she cursed at birth but is now beginning to care about. I enjoyed the film and could definitely watch it again. It's a good length, doesn't overstay it's welcome, and a few moments are genuinely emotional and thought-provoking, if watched from a certain, real-life perspective.
As a fan of fantasy and epic stories, I still could have done without the CGI battle that felt ripped from the pages of Tolkien's "Return of the King" and settled more for the kid-friendly hijinks of the creatures of the Moors or Aurora's three fairy godmothers.