Phew, it turns out Sarah was right as usual. Maleficent is a live-action and loadsa-CGI retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story. It’s based on the classic Disney animation, but told from the point of view of the evil fairy. In this version she is as much sinned against as sinning, and the real villain turns out to be Sleeping Beauty’s father, King Stefan. The twists it makes to the traditional tale work rather well for the most part (though the wall of thorns is a bit under-used). The middle section, in which she secretly watches over the development of the child she has cursed, becomes the heart of the story: the hundred years’ sleep turns into little more than a heavy nap (which was a pity, I felt) the three fairies charged with Princess Aurora’s upbringing are comically inept, and the handsome prince is a weedy Justin Bieber lookalike who spends much of his screen-time unconscious and being levitated around by Maleficent. It really is her movie, and Angelina Jolie is tremendous. I can’t think offhand of any recent fantasy film which revolves around such a powerful and unorthodox female lead.
I think I can imagine why some people didn’t like it – it’s too dark for small children, too light for grimdark fantasy fans, and maybe it annoys people with fond memories of the original Sleeping Beauty (I have none; I recall seeing the clip where the prince fights the dragon on Michael Rodd’s Screen Test a lot, but that’s about it.)
But it looks beautiful, in a lush, Pre-Raphaelites-on-laudanum way. The CGI is sometimes a bit intrusive (there are some fairy creatures which would be better as Dark Crystal style puppets) but often it’s used very well. There’s a shot early on where a trapped raven is transformed into a man which is fantastically strange and spooky, and some great scenes of Maleficent in flight which reminded me of both Brazil and Avatar (director Robert Stromberg was an art director on Avatar). It also reminded me of Excalibur – not just the obvious references in its fire-and-iron battle scenes, but the economy of the storytelling, the way that years whisk by in seconds, the way it trusts its audience to enter into its mythic, fairy-tale spirit and accept it’s dreamlike logic.
And, unlike certain recent fantasy movies we could mention, Maleficent is short; it does its job and rolls the credits after 97 minutes, and it’s all the better for it.