A number of films and plays have lately looked at classic fairytales from the viewpoint of a villain, including this live-action retelling of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, released 55 years to the day after the animated original. It’s rather better than I’d expected, and it would have been better still had the impact of some ideas not been lessened by similarities to Disney’s Frozen.
Angelina Jolie has the title role and had a lot of influence on the film; her executive producer credit is not just honorary. She reportedly annoyed Disney marketing executives by insisting that her makeup preserve the angular features of the animated character, diminishing her own attractiveness. The principal screenwriter (Linda Woolverton), on the other hand, apparently appreciated Jolie’s input and her insistence that Maleficent not be softened. We can sympathize with her sorrows that made her a villain, but she still is a villain, and rather looks it.
There were a number of children on set from time to time during production, some as actors, some the family members of cast or crew. Jolie is of course well known for liking children (and adopting several), so she tried to be friendly to them, but they were pretty much all too scared by the sight of her in her makeup. One little girl pleaded, “Mommy, please get the mean witch to stop talking to me.”
The baby who plays the infant princess Aurora was supposed to smile and laugh even at the evil Maleficent, but the baby cast in the role would burst into tears at the sight of Jolie. Eventually she became upset and walked off saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” (I mean Jolie did this, not the baby.)
A later scene called for a slightly older Aurora to hug Maleficent, and this time the little girl was played by one of Jolie’s own daughters (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) because she recognized her mother and wasn't afraid.
Incidentally, we first see Maleficent as a kind and cheerful girl fairy (played by exotic-looking English actress Isobelle Molloy), but later a war launched by the neighboring human kingdom and a subsequent horrific betrayal transform her character into someone cruel, bitter, and full of hate, which culminates in her appearance at the christening of the next human king’s daughter (in a scene that deliberately echoes the original animated version) where she places a curse on the innocent baby.
As in the animated film, three good fairies become Aurora’s guardians, though they prove ridiculously bad as nannies. The actresses are familiar-looking but I couldn’t place them until I looked them up. Knotgrass is played by Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films), Flittle by Lesley Manville (who’s had a bunch of award-winning roles on stage and screen), and Thistlewit by Juno Temple (the cute environment-obsessed student in St Trinian’s). For my tastes, the fairies’ names in the animated version — Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather — were less annoyingly dumb.
The fairy stooges supply what passes for comic relief, and unfortunately I found the attempts at comedy to be the weakest part of the movie, with only a couple of bits that are actually amusing. In one of them Jolie pulls a practical joke on the fairies and when her pet crow fails to laugh she scolds him, “Oh come on! That's funny!”
The animated Maleficent also had a crow or raven, but in this film he has a bigger role and spends a lot of time transformed by her into a human (Sam Riley), a wolf, a horse, or some other creature she finds of use, all of which have crow-like faces.
One annoyance: The song "Once Upon a Dream" from the original film is sung over part of the end credits in this one (with a few small changes in the words), but while the lyricists are credited, the composer for some reason is not. The melody is that of the “Sleeping Beauty Waltz” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky from his ballet.
The effects are excellent. The attempted human invasion of the Fairy domain looks like something out of a Peter Jackson film but less drawn-out. (The whole movie runs just 97 minutes.) Jolie performs most of her own stunts, some of which involved her being launched into the air on wires. She must be in amazing physical condition. Brad Pitt probably spends a lot of time in pain. Too bad.
If you saw the J.J. Abrams film Super 8 (2011) about a group of kids making amateur movies in 1979 you almost certainly remember the girl the boys persuaded to appear in the latest production and how she turned out to be such a good actress that it’s literally funny in the context of the film. That actress was Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning’s 12-year-old sister. Here she plays the not-quite-yet-16 Princess Aurora, and is very likable, even though the role doesn’t give her much to do. (At least she’s a better realized character than in the animated original, which gave Princess Aurora hardly any lines outside of her two songs.)
There’s a lot about Maleficent that’s predictable, and most of its attempts at humor fall flat. But overall I liked it.
And as a bonus, here's the first occurrence of the "Once Upon a Dream" from the original film, here seen in a sing-along version from a Disney DVD:
(Updated 2015-08-01 to add the clip from the original.)