Coming from the House of Mouse, Maleficent opens as you would expect with the Disney castle logo; the castle becomes real and takes form and we pan to the countryside beyond the castle to two distant kingdoms caught in an uneasy truce. This is an important touch as what Maleficent looks to offer is not an alternate reality or any form of new interpretation. Fairy tales have been borrowed from a plenty to entertain, the kosher Disney versions are of course adaptations themselves. Most recently, Once Upon a Time on TV has re-written the history book for every fairy tale character and Disney itself has made Alice a warrior, the Wizard of Oz a love triangle, and the girls of Frozen are characterised as very contemporary women. With Maleficent though we are in pure fairy tale territory; the movie is intended to build on and add to classic Disney canon with the technology of the age giving live-action life to fairies, sprawling castles, and fantastical woodlands.
There’s no irony, pop-culture or pandering to jaded audiences here; time is given to expanding the original story, not with a modern twist, just by making it a richer tale. Put simply this means there is less for adult viewers here. In fact, some darker moments rules out younger viewers watching this so it’s not entirely clear where this movie will find its audience. The movie is absolutely enjoyable but there is an adjustment to the almost nostalgic, more classical feel to the film. The adjustment includes time to take Angelina Jolie seriously once she appears in all her winged, horned glory. Jolie though clearly takes the role seriously and avoids any potential for cackling and over-acting. For the most part she is subdued and makes an interesting core to the movie playing a tragic villain. Physically she is tailor-made to embody the Maleficent we know from the original Sleeping Beauty; her poise, delivery, glossed eyes and the too-angular-to-believe cheek bones. Jolie also hits some great comedy notes but again any humour falls on the twee side of the spectrum. Elle Fanning is on naïve princess duties as Aurora, the doomed Sleeping Beauty. She is pitch-perfect as a classic Disney princess come to life. Her character is the light to Jolie’s shade but not in a vanilla way – she is a knowing, mostly developed character.
As with other fairy tales, there are some sharp turns here rather than developed story. A prologue of Maleficent as a young girl and the bond that develops between Maleficent and Aurora feel rushed and convenient. Nevertheless, these new dynamics gives the movie its purpose and lead to an inevitable but well executed pay-off that plays with a fairy tale staple. There is probably no pixel of the movie that hasn’t been touch by CGI; this lends carte blanche to the makers when it comes to the limits of magic and adds to the epic scale of the movie. None of this comes at the price of the reassurance and enjoyment the movie offers, its old-school approach probably means it will age very well. Disney is set to bring us a new take on Cinderella in the coming year, based on the evidence, using Maleficent as a template for bringing new life to old tales would be a wise move.