However you look at it, the very existence of this film is a stroke of genius. What with Disney’s animation department having seen a Lion King-sized resurgence with Frozen, it seems tipping a hat to traditional Mouse House fairytales whilst gently pushing them down subversive new avenues might be the key to the company’s future success.
A live-action reworking of a Walt-reared classic, from the perspective of the villain? Brilliant! Casting Angelina Jolie – who’s been gathering an evangelical fan-base since Girl, Interrupted – in the title role? Even more brilliant!
The entire promotional campaign has banked on the combined names Jolie and Maleficent being sufficient to create a monster hit, and it’s paid off. The cinema foyer at the advance screening was packed full of people queuing up to wear horns for a photo, and teenaged girls jumping up and down in the cinema to win a set from the MC.
At times, the film seems aware of its own celebrity, with moments almost entirely engineered to become gifs and spread across social media for years to come – most notably when Jolificent tells a young Aurora how much she hates children.
Does Maleficent overcome all this hype to do the Sleeping Beauty villain justice? Of course not. From the moment we are introduced to a sparky young fairy called Maleficent, who flies through the air whooping and telling awful CGI creatures how much she loves their new fungus-ridden hats, we know that not a single person on the creative team questioned what the word “maleficent” means, and why such a lovely young girl would be cursed with the name from birth.
If only to answer the question of why an all-powerful being would be so miffed not to be invited to a child’s christening that she’d doom her to a death-like sleep, this is a flip-side worth telling. And Maleficent, to its credit, gives us an intriguing premise involving the perceived villain’s relationship with Aurora’s dad, King Stefan (played with admirable gusto by Sharlto Copley). This even brings about a scene explaining Maleficent’s lack of wings that’s genuinely moving, nightmarish and, best of all, out of the pages of a fairytale.
If only more such creative risks had been taken. Every affront by a “hilarious” good fairy or atrociously-designed woodland creature makes one long for the darkness of ‘80s Disney horrors like Return to Oz or Something Wicked This Way Comes. Or, in fact, Sleeping Beauty, whose scene in which Aurora is inevitably drawn zombie-like to the spinning wheel is far more sinister and chilling than anything here.
Maleficent is a glamorous but terrifying villain; somewhere in this lurks a cracking PG-rated horror film. We get glimpses of it in King Stefan’s growing paranoia and madness, but it’s vandalised by Aurora’s (Elle Fanning) incessant playing with fantastical creatures or Maleficent’s raven becoming a shapeshifting Sam Riley. The reason for this was presumably to allow Maleficent’s developing feelings to be communicated through dialogue, but with an actress as skilled as Jolie it’s an entirely redundant device.
Jolie is, by and large, the film’s saving grace. With her in the role, a dialogue-free 90 minutes of Maleficent hiding amongst snowy trees and peering through windows alone would have been far more enthralling than the messy crowd-pleaser this chooses to be.
And a crowd-pleaser it is. Its celebrity has already been confirmed, its place in fandom cemented. And while some of the film’s more subversive elements – particularly its laissez-faire attitude towards Prince Phillip – are somewhat mitigated by similar twists in Frozen, they are enough to lift what could have been a failure of Alice in Wonderland proportions.
As popcorn fodder, Maleficent does its job. As a 3D portrayal of one of Disney’s most iconic villains, it only partially succeeds. A shame, but this new take on old stories nevertheless hints at an interesting future direction for Disney.
Released in UK cinemas on Wednesday 28 May 2014.