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Elle Fanning as Aurora

Elle Fanning as Aurora

OK, I admit I’m a 54 year old guy and I was looking forward to seeing Maleficent. The trailers show Angela Jolie at her wicked best and it looked like more than the typical fairy story; the trailer with Lana Del Rey singing a haunting “Once Upon A Dream” suggests it’s not business as usual for Disney:

Indeed, this is a fresh take on the tale starting with the back story of the Maleficent. It is both darker and lighter than most movie fairy tales; it is darker in its look, in its pain and in its world view – there is no true love. It’s a bit like Wicked compared to the Wonderful Wizard of Oz except this isn’t a musical. Another comparison would be Oz the Great and Powerful (on which Director Robert Stromberg was Production Designer) to the same, but, I believe, with better acting, world building and story. I actually liked Oz the Great and Powerful; I love Maleficent.

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But I digress. It is also a more lyrical, light world and narrative than most fairy tales. One of the amazing things about this world is that dark and light are both beautiful although they are not equally good.

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This juxtaposition of light and dark is played throughout the film in place and time, people’s lives and choices made. It is not just good versus evil. It is the good in us warring with our evil nature. One tag line Disney is using with the film is “Visions are seldom all they seem.”

The cast is phenomenal. Angela Jolie is as great as you expect her to be. She loves the evil but is equally believable in the light.  A special surprise is Sam Riley as Diaval, about which more later. The world is as stunning as Pandora in Avatar (Mr. Stromberg was also Production Designer on Avatar) and the narrative is amazing; in many ways, Linda Woolverton’s story is the star of this production. Maleficent fires almost perfectly on all fronts, I even liked the fairies (Imelda Staunton is always fabulous). I didn’t care for Sharlto Copley as Stefan – his voice was too high pitched in the beginning and he suffers from comparison amongst a stellar cast; he can do a great job playing a bad guy – see Elysium – but he just didn’t do so here. 

Sam Riley as Diaval

Sam Riley as Diaval

Diaval, the raven/man, epitomizes the story. He is a somewhat smart-mouthed servant to Maleficent who comes to care for both her and Aurora. He is willing to do what is necessary, but doesn’t revel in evil. Diaval is her eyes and ears, perceptive both physically and mentally. If Elle Fanning is the heart of the movie, he is its soul. So, not only was it a nice surprise for the role to be interesting, it was equally surprising to find it so well played by Sam Riley.

Robert Stromberg makes his directorial debut in Maleficent; while Mr. Stromberg is no new comer to Hollywood (his visual effects work is stunning on some the best visual films of Hollywood as well as production designer on three visual feasts (add Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to the aforementioned), I applaud Disney’s willingness to risk such a large production to him. Their risk was rewarded. He has a deft sense of timing, flow and beauty. Coupling that with a great story results in one of my favorite Disney films.

Robert Stromberg; - Photo by Eric Charbonneau

Robert Stromberg; – Photo by Eric Charbonneau

Linda Woolverton is a veteran screenwriter including the screenplays for Alice in Wonderland and The Lion King. This reboot of Charles Perrault’s
La Belle au Bois Dormant, or The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood is perfect fodder for her wit and terrific sense of balance between characters, relationships and narrative. Her revision is fresh, makes sense and honors the source material whilst driving the narrative of the movie in a new way. The dialog is clear and crisp and the story is great; alas I can’t say more without revealing too much.

Linda Woolverton, Screenwriter

Linda Woolverton, Screenwriter

Ms. Woolverton has a bit more to say:

The soundtrack is spot on; James Newton Howard continues his excellent work (the man has his own studio, since 1997! Who knew?). Of course, Lana Del Rey’s version of Once Upon a Dream is gorgeous and a bit chilling. Overall, the score provides the perfect backdrop of the movie; it soars when Maleficent flies above the Moors. It brings the drama when Maleficent enters the hall on the day of Aurora is christened. It comically flits when the fairies become “Peasant women”. It fits. Plus Lana Del Rey. Just sayin’.

I highly recommend the film to all old enough to handle the dark elements. It is a delight.

****************SPOILERS**************************

OK, some things better left unsaid for those who haven’t seen it. Things I love about Malevicent:

– The protagonist becomes the villain and reawakens to her true self and is the protagonist once again. Execution is everything. This was done is a sympathetic way where no one is a mere victim.

– True love’s kiss comes from a (surrogate) mother. While the Prince will come to love Aurora, true love takes time.

– Sam Riley makes a great smartass; I love the way the film moves him to wolf and dragon. Nice touch

– I love the beauty of this world, especially the Moors. I believe it was particularly clever to have the dark version of the Moors be beautiful. Even the human castle can be beautiful and dark. It was a great touch for the iron barricade in the castle to match the thorn wall of the Moors.

– Maleficent truly repents her evil spell. She not only has true sorrow but she takes action to undo her evil; she (seemingly) fails but makes the attempt with all that is in her.

– It is a complex tale with complex people. No one, not even Stephan is as evil as he might be whilst none, other than Aurora and Prince are, without fail, good.

– Their attention to detail. From the “boney” structure of Diaval in man form to the extenuated features of Maleficent.

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Magnifique!

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