You have to hand it to Disney. As a studio who can reinvent and put a new twist on old hits, they constantly manage to surprise; they injected new life into their animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) with a live action version in 1996, and brought alive the back story of Mary Poppins (1964) with Saving Mr Banks (2013). With this in mind it appears that they managed to outdo even themselves with the bewitching Maleficent, a reinterpretation of their animated masterpiece Sleeping Beauty (1959).
If you thought that the wicked fairy was the villain in the legendary tale of Sleeping Beauty, think again. Here is the true story of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), and how a villain who broke her heart made her become one of literature’s most cruelly misunderstood individuals.
It perhaps shows a lack of panache for a critic to revert to clichés, but there is simply no other way to describe this Disney blockbuster. One of the most eagerly anticipated (and hyped) films in recent memory – the advance publicity for this one was being leaked for what felt like several years before its release – the film is the type which will, quite literally, cast a spell on the viewer. From its sharp twist on the age old story of Briar Rose, to the uncannily realistic visualisations of the settings from the original animated version and spot on casting of Jolie in the primary role of Maleficent, every aspect of this film drips with a style and wit which Disney has made its trademark.
Though the film is called Maleficent, it is to all intents still the story of Sleeping Beauty and as such the character of Aurora remains its main focus. It is Aurora who is the catalyst which brings the film’s other disparate individuals – her father King Stefan, the guardian fairies Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit and the valiant Prince Philip – together. Here however is where the similarities with the 1950s animated film end. It would have been simple for Disney to tell the story exactly the same, frame for frame. But where would the fun have been in that. Instead the roles are reversed and, without wanting to spoil the story – and one of the best twist in the tale endings seen in recent cinema – the result has the viewer’s allegiances turned on by heir head in a most unexpected way.
The film’s recreation of King Stefan’s harsh and cruel medieval kingdom, and its neighbouring fantasy world ruled by Maleficent and peopled with an array of strange and exotic magical creatures, is truly the stuff of fairytales. Like the most memorable parts of the dialogue which are taken from the original classic, there are elements of the settings which will also be recognisable. However they are woven in such a fresh and inventive way that they never appear as anything less than unique.
Though the rest of the cast – including Elle Fanning as the innocent Aurora and Imelda Staunton in a top-notch performance as the chief fairy Knotgrass – are believable in their roles, it is without doubt Jolie to whom the film belongs. From her first appearance on screen you can tell that this was a role she was born to play, and never once do you consider her as anything other than a real, live and totally authentic supernatural being.
It takes a lot for a film based on a fairytale to bring tears to the viewer’s eyes, but this new rendering of the old children’s fable does just that. Maleficent is a masterly reinvention of a Disney classic, and as such is destined for cult status.