Breaking the Curse – Maleficent Review

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Back in January, just as Frozen‘s box office sales looked set to pass the billion dollar mark, MCM Buzz published an article musing over whether the film’s soaring success might encourage Disney to further explore the still relatively uncharted territory of central relationships between female characters. If this year’s summer blockbuster Maleficent is anything to judge by, it’s a prediction that has already come true, with Disney once again revisiting and revising a “tale as old as time” with a focus on exploring the real meaning of “true love”.

Maleficent was always going to be a film that would have to wrestle with strong audience preconceptions: there are doubtless many people out there who’ll be wishing that Disney had left the Sleeping Beauty story and its 1950s characters well alone. Things could easily have gone either way, and disappointments were well prepared for, but watching the film itself leaves no doubt whatsoever that justice has been done to the source material: cleverly and carefully, Maleficent highlights and expands on everything that was already great about Sleeping Beauty (the design, the music and of course, Maleficent herself), while taking a lot of license with all the less interesting parts.

maleficent diavalMaking his directorial debut, Robert Stromberg has a background in visual design, having created special effects for the likes of Life of Pi, The Golden Compass, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as acting as production designer on Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful. Maleficent is as visually spectacular as any of these, filled with similar darkly beautiful, nature-inspired designs, that manage to look back to the original Sleeping Beauty illustrations, while still maintaining their own unique style. Stromberg is helped along with the visuals by some fantastic costumes from Oscar-winning designer Anna Biedrzycka-Sheppard (Schindler’s List, Inglourious Basterds, Captain America) and amazing make-up from cinema legend Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,Hellboy, Planet of the Apes) that sees Angelina Jolie‘s excellent cheekbones sculpted into edges sharp enough to slice through glass, and her big, hypnotic eyes turned an other-worldly yellow, which strangely serves to emphasise her all-too-human emotions.

It pretty much goes without saying that James Newton Howard is a man who can do almost no musical wrong. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll probably be familiar with his gorgeous, twinkly score for 2003’s Peter Pan,which also ended up featuring in a lot of Disneyland promotion. More recently, he was the man behind the haunting soundtrack to The Hunger GamesMaleficent‘s score falls somewhere in between these two, combining the soaring heights of the former with a bleaker, more troubling undercurrent. These darker, more subdued elements are complemented well by Lana del Rey‘s cold, eerie vocals on a brilliant reimagining of “Once Upon a Dream“, which seems to take on new meanings in the context of this story. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect companion for a Disney film than Howard’s magical, fairy-dust-infused work, which is lovely to listen to even without the visuals.

maleficent wings 2As incredible as the film looks and sounds, however, it is undeniably Jolie herself who really turns it into something special. Having made some rather questionable acting choices over the course of her career, Maleficent serves as a powerful reminder of all that Jolie is capable of, given half a chance to show it. She is nothing short of magnificent, excelling at everything from ramped-up pantomime villainy to soul-crushing anguish following her character’s betrayal. At times it’s almost hard to watch her: there’s an awful lot of pain in this film, both emotional and physical, and it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to read something a little biographical into the performance, given recent events in Jolie’s own life.

Elle Fanning (Super 8Astro BoyYoung Ones) is perfectly cast, bringing a bright, youthful innocence to Princess Aurora. Part of the reason her animated counterpart comes across as so infuriatingly sappy and wet is that we instinctively expect more thought and assertiveness from a character who looks and sounds mature, even if the story does tell us she is about to turn 16. In addition to taking on a much more active role in Maleficent‘s plot, Fanning’s version also allows us to forgive the character her naïveté by reminding us that Aurora is still essentially a child. Sam Riley (ControlByzantiumBrighton Rock) also does a great turn as Diaval, Maleficent’s sly but sensitive crow sidekick, who is variously transformed by his fairy mistress into a man, a wolf and a dragon (in place of Maleficent herself).

Maleficent‘s fairy-tale revisionism goes beyond its feminist rebalancing: there’s also a more general critique of greed, inequality and the pursuit of power as fostered by undemocratic leadership systems. Marriage isn’t the only part of traditional “happily ever afters” to come under fire: if the Maleficent Auroraembittered and vengeful Maleficent and the paranoid and dangerous King Stefan (Sharlto CopleyDistrict 9, The A-Team, Elysium) are anything to go by, it seems becoming King or Queen isn’t the key to contentment either, whether for rulers or for their subjects. At the start of the film, we’re told that fairy land does not need a king or queen to rule over it because its inhabitants are able to trust each other and live together as equals. Meanwhile, in the human world, kings rule unjustly and everyone seems more or less unhappy. Sadly, this message is somewhat undermined by subsequent plot developments, though not enough to take away from it being an interesting part of the film.

Fitting in nicely with the gothic/romantic style and tone is a subtle suspicion of industrialism, with iron being the “Fair People’s” Achilles heel. The thorns that later come to surround the castle are solid iron structures, whose creation was ordered of the blacksmiths by King Stefan himself, modelled on the natural defences that Maleficent conjures up around her magical home to protect it from ambitious human invaders.

As the film progresses, its inevitable conclusion does become a little easy to predict. Though this isn’t really a problem in itself (what fairy tale film doesn’t have a predictable plot, after all?), there may be an argument that some of the major beats could be seen as a little too similar to those in Frozen. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind that this film will have been in development for quite some time, rendering it fairly unlikely there was any direct or deliberate copying. More probably, it will have come from a coincidental interest in addressing the same themes. Ultimately, it’s hard to see this in anything but a positive light, since it suggests that the sentiment is genuine, rather than simply an attempt to cash in on what’s already proven popular. Just as Anna and Aurora demonstrate that true love isn’t all about dashing princes and damsels in distress, the likes of Elsa and Maleficent may well be the beginning of a whole new generation of anti-heroines breaking the fairy-tale mould.

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